Google's Chrome: Ohhh! Shiny!

Google's Chrome browser isn't ready for prime time but it sure is shiny and interesting.

Following my Gearhead column two weeks ago about browsers, a number of people posted comments online complaining that I never got around to discussing Google’s Chrome despite having started out by mentioning it. I particularly liked the title of the first comment: “Are you retarded?” To all of these nice, polite posters: I ran out of space. So sue me.

In that column I discussed Firefox browser add-ons and, if I hadn’t run out of space, would have pointed out that while Chrome supports the most popular plug-ins (including Flash, Acrobat Reader, Java, Windows Media Player, Real Player, QuickTime and Silverlight), it doesn’t support sophisticated add-ons like these. Yet.

So, let’s see, what is this new-fangled Chrome thing all about? It is a fast, beta, open source Web browser for Windows (OS X and Linux are planned) released under the BSD License, which means you can use the code as part of a proprietary commercial product.

Chrome is, as I mentioned, fast. It provides a very sparse tab-based interface that eschews (really) the normal menu bar (unlike Internet Explorer, which just hides it).

Chrome also has built in support for Google Gears, which allows you to save a special type of shortcut for Web sites. Using Google Gears technology, these shortcuts encapsulate Web content for both online and off-line use, creating what are, in effect, more like applications than Web pages.

Chrome is actually the result of the Chromium project, and despite the current Chrome release being for Windows only, CodeWeavers has released CrossOver Chromium, which implements Chromium natively on OS X and Linux. CC (as its adherents may call it) was created using CodeWeavers’ Wine development system.

One important difference that CodeWeavers notes is that CrossOver Chromium, unlike Chrome, doesn’t have automatic updating. This may sound like a deficiency, except that in Chrome automatic updating is just that - automatic, as in every five hours where possible.

When a new version that implements bug fixes and or security updates is available, Chrome will download it and then update itself on the next restart. And it will do all of that without bothering to tell you what has been changed.

Google’s rationale for this is "When there are security fixes, it's crucial that we update our users as quickly as possible in order to keep them safe. Thus, it's important for us to not require user intervention. . . . There are some security fixes that we'll keep quiet because we don't want to disclose security vulnerabilities to attackers. . . . For major version updates, when feature changes are involved, we'll explore options for providing users with more details about the changes."

It will be interesting to see how this automatic-update strategy evolves as Chrome matures. The problem is that software updates being implemented unilaterally by a vendor is not consistent with the policies of many enterprise IT groups that require regression and compatibility testing before version roll-out. In other words, this update method is not suitable – at least in its current form – for production IT environments.

Actually the whole Chrome project is, so far, quite a distance from something enterprises would want to make a serious bet on, but the potential is what Google is offering. Google has stated, “What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for Web pages and applications, and that's what we set out to build.”

Chrome might not be a threat to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer today or even tomorrow, but there will come a time in the near future when Chrome has matured into Google’s platform vision. With Google’s weight behind it, well, your enterprise is going to have to pay attention.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.