Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Chrome-ification of the Web Browser

Google's Chrome browser raised a few eyebrows when it exploded onto the scene in September 2008. Its minimalist user interface was a far cry from the more traditional interfaces of Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and it was an odd business decision as well - some 90 percent of Mozilla's funding comes from Google, in one form or another.

In the time since its release, though, Chrome has become the new darling of the computer-savvy set, and it's beginning to catch on among less technical users as well. It recently passed Apple's Safari as the Web's third most-used browser, and Google's zippy development cycle means that Chrome has gone from an in-beta work-in-progress to version six in just two years.

Chrome's Next Big Thing status is beginning to rub off on the other major browsers, as well, which is what today's post is about. Whether you love Chrome's interface or hate it, whether you've never heard of it or you've been using it faithfully for three Septembers, the chances are good that within the next six months your Web browser of choice is going to look and act a lot like Chrome.

Google Chrome

First, I guess, let’s talk about what makes Chrome Chrome, and why it’s important: Google Chrome’s most distinctive feature remains its efficient, tabs-on-top interface. In Chrome 6, by default, you see the tabs, the address bar, and a few buttons – that’s it. There’s no title bar taking up space at the top of the screen, no separate search box. This is what most people think of when they think of Chrome.


The browser also features some less obvious stuff – the Sync feature, which is increasingly robust, allows users to synchronize bookmarks, themes, and other data between multiple computers. It treats each tab as a separate running program, which basically means that if one tab crashes it doesn’t bring down the entire browser. Its browsing speed is the fastest on the market currently, though the difference has to be measured in units so small that it may be irrelevant. Chrome’s features are hot right now, and Google has changed the browser landscape by pushing them so aggressively.

Mozilla Firefox

It didn’t used to be like this – back in the mid-2000s, when Internet Explorer 6 reigned supreme, Mozilla’s Firefox was in charge of bringing innovation to the masses. Tabbed browsing was a revelation. Extensions made the browser infinitely customizable. Its insistence on conforming to established Web standards (specific, agreed-upon rules for the way that code is supposed to look and work) was lauded by coders and developers sick of programming work-arounds to satisfy Microsoft’s buggy old browser. The circumstances are now reversed – Firefox’s development has slowed down, and version 4.0 (due by the end of the year) is definitely playing catch-up with Chrome.


Firefox 4 beta 5, released days ago and pictured above, does some to even the score, but there are still weird things going on here. In particular, I take issue with the vast empty area at the top of the screen, between the Firefox button on the left and the Close button on the right. That’s wasted space, especially on a tiny netbook screen. Why not put the tabs up there so they’re actually on top?

Firefox 4 is also set to introduce syncing and speed improvements and a raft of other features, which you can read about here. Given that a new Firefox release takes at least twice as long to come out as a new Chrome version, though, it’s hard to predict how the Browser That Broke Internet Explorer’s Stranglehold On the Market is going to perform moving forward.

Internet Explorer

Speaking of Internet Explorer, a beta of IE9 is due to be unveiled on the 15th of this month. We’re not quite sure what the browser is going to look like yet, though a possible version of the new IE’s interface was leaked last month by a Russian Web site.


Ignoring if you can the questionable legitimacy of this screenshot, it’s almost a sure bet that Internet Explorer 9 will crib features from Chrome. Tabs-on-top is an obvious move, and according to this screenshot Microsoft will also be combining the Search box and the address bar into one box, Chrome style.

IE9 also adds “hardware rendering” of Web pages – in normal-people speak, it will use your computer’s video chip to make pages more attractive and to load them more quickly. For the record, this feature is also slated for Firefox 4.0, and for Chrome 7.0. Increased performance and compliance with Web standards has also been promised.

And the Rest

There are about as many browsers out there as there are people using them, and they don’t all have plans to look just like Google Chrome. Apple’s Safari, the browser included with Mac OS X and the fourth most-used overall, still doesn’t put its tabs on top or sync your bookmarks, but the general trend has been to condense buttons and toolbars to save space. Opera, everyone’s fifth ninth least not-so favorite alternative browser, offers tabs on top as well as syncing and a lot of other Chrome features, though I’d argue that its lack of marketshare and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to features makes it a little less usable than the other browsers we’ve talked about.

Basically, my point is, Google Chrome has left its mark. It’s slowly climbing up in marketshare, and the Web’s most-used browsers are tripping over themselves to emulate its features and interface. From the time it was announced, it was clear that Chrome would be an interesting browser with an unpredictable future, but from where I’m standing this looks like another success for Google.