A first look at the Google Chrome browser

screen-shotMy Twit­ter fol­low­ers will know I’ve been slight­ly obsessed by Google’s new brows­er, Chrome, since word leaked that it was going to be released today (Tues, Sept 2). I’ve been hit­ting reload on the down­load site fair­ly obses­sive­ly. A few min­utes ago my per­sis­tence was reward­ed and I’m writ­ing to you all from the new brows­er (here’s the offi­cial release announce­ment).

Why a New Browser?!?
Before I begin, let me rec­om­mend the Google Chrome online com­ic book for those with tech inter­ests. Google does a good job explain­ing why they’ve joined the brows­er wars. At first glance it seems a need­less move: they already fund much of the devel­op­ment on the open source Fire­fox brows­er. But Fire­fox, like Microsoft Inter­net Explor­er and every oth­er brows­er, is built around cer­tain assump­tions about how browsers process appli­ca­tions. Google is start­ing from scratch and think­ing about the brows­er as an oper­at­ing sys­tem run­ning increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed appli­ca­tions (like Gmail). Chrome sep­a­rates mem­o­ry process and inter­net per­mis­sions in new ways.
Obvi­ous­ly, Google is going after Microsoft (the ini­tial release of Chrome is Win­dows only) – not just its brows­er but its Vista oper­at­ing sys­tem as well. With the expan­sion of high speed inter­net access and so-called “cloud com­put­ing,” func­tions that used to require stand-alone clients can now be han­dled inside the brows­er. Email has prob­a­bly become the most wide­ly adopt­ed brows­er appli­ca­tions but you can also do things pho­to edit­ing and video record­ing through the brows­er. Google knows that once an appli­ca­tion is run­ning inside a brows­er, the oper­at­ing sys­tem doesn’t mat­ter. Gmail works equal­ly fine from Vista, Mac OS X, or Lin­ux.
It is in Google’s strate­gic inter­est to advance the state of brows­er tech­nol­o­gy and they do that with Chrome. But it is in the inter­est that every­one have access to these lat­est inno­va­tions and that all browsers can run the most sophis­ti­cat­ed appli­ca­tions Google engi­neers can put togeth­er. So Chrome is open source and Google invites oth­er browsers to incor­po­rate many of its features. 
First Thoughts on the Product:
The down­load was quick and easy (of course).
I was sur­prised that when installing it only offered to import my MS Inter­net Explor­er book­marks. My most com­plete and up-to-date book­mark list is in Fire­fox (synced among my oper­at­ing sys­tems by the excel­lent Fox­marks exten­sion).
I went pret­ty imme­di­ate­ly to Gmail. Google says they’ve rewrit­ten a lot of the back­ground ren­der­ing code from scratch and I was expect­ing to see instan­ta­neous load­ing. Frankly, it seemed to load as quick­ly as it does in Fire­fox. Any appar­ent speed increase isn’t imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous (this is a tes­ta­ment to how fast they’ve man­aged to get it to load in all browsers).
speed-dialThe inter­face is very sim­pli­fied: few but­tons, tabs up top, no sta­tus bar. There’s a lot of sur­pris­es here, like an auto­mat­i­cal­ly gen­er­at­ed page with thumb­nails of your most fre­quent­ly vis­it­ed sites (see image, right), an idea bor­rowed from Opera browser’s “Speed Dial” fea­ture (avail­able through to Fire­fox users through the Speed Dial exten­sion).
gmail-as-app
You can also “Cre­ate appli­ca­tion short­cuts” which turn ser­vices such as Gmail into client-like appli­ca­tions that sit on your desk­top (screen­shot right). Open them up from here and the nor­mal loca­tion bar and brows­er but­tons are gone.
There’s a lot more to explore here. It’s obvi­ous that Google has put a lot of thought into this. I’m not going to dis­miss any fea­ture or odd­i­ty too quick­ly. They helped a lot of us rethink how we orga­nize email using a sin­gle “Archive” fold­er instead of the elaborately-maintained fold­er hier­ar­chy. Google actu­al­ly have put out a num­ber of half-baked and under-supported ser­vices (Froogle and Google Check­out come most imme­di­ate­ly to mind) but it’s clear that the Google Chrome brows­er is a very seri­ous ini­tia­tive by the company.
Will I Use It?
The big ques­tion, right? Actu­al­ly, I won’t use it much for now. For one thing, I’m a Mac user. I have a Win­dows XP vir­tu­al machine run­ning most of the time cour­tesy of VMWare’s Fusion. I’m sure Google has set a high pri­or­i­ty to make Mac OS X and Lin­ux ver­sions of Chrome – they’re whole strat­e­gy rests on this being woven into the brows­er lin­gua fran­ca that keeps Microsoft’s Vista at bay, remem­ber?, but until that time Chrome won’t be my nat­ur­al first choice.
But I’m also going to miss my Fire­fox exten­sions. I for­got that the web has lots of ads (Adblock Plus). And I don’t like the extra clut­ter of Gmail with­out Bet­ter Gmail 2 (just the “Folders4Gmail” fea­ture of the lat­ter saves my eye more scan­ning time than any speed tweak Chrome deliv­ers). And these days the Web Devel­op­ers Tool­bar, Last­pass, FireFTP exten­sions are pret­ty essen­tial to my work day.
But if a native Mac ver­sion was released? And if Fire­fox exten­sions start­ed being rewrit­ten for Chrome? I just flipped back to my reg­u­lar brows­er to check some­thing and even after an hour with Chrome, Fire­fox felt so heavy and clunky. It is pos­si­ble to see Chrome could a seri­ous con­tender for my attention.