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So last night (UK time), Google held a press event to formally launch their browser ‘Chrome‘ to the masses. It’s still in beta (v0.2 it seems) and on Windows only (at ;east for the moment) but this is going to be the topic of conversation for a while, but is it any good? The interface leaves a lot bigger area for the viewport; the tabs at the top seem natural very quickly.

There’s no title bar, status bar or other options you’d expect to see; it’s about the browsing.  It has a few good touches, such as highlighting in black, the domain your currently viewing, the ‘quick dial’ style feature similar to Opera but showing the last few sites you’ve visited.  The V8 Javascript engine appears to really make some noticeable difference, certainly on AJAX heavy sites like iGoogle or GMail, which I use fairly often.  A part of me wonders how much of this has to do with V8 or the fact that I haven’t piled Chrome full of add-ons like my version of Firefox.

While it doesn’t have a permanent status bar, it does have subtle messages that appear in the footer when you hover over links, wait for a page to load, etc, which is good.  It’s built on WebKit so in many ways it parrallels Safari and so has the expanding text areas and the like. This is good news as a developer – so far I see no negative rendering of sites that work well in other browsers and Safari is normally decent at rendering standards based sites.  As has been reported, the other handy thing is the fact each tab is a browser instance, which is one of the real innovations; if you check your Windows Task Manager you’ll see what I mean.  By going to the ‘page icon’ and down to ‘Developer’ and Task Manager, you can see all the use of resources of the browser, each tab and any plug-ins in terms of memory, CPU and network.  Great for finding any issues with a site in development and getting rid of a site with a leaky script on it.  But as it’s still in beta – should we officially support it?

The main thing is that it’s simple to use.  There’s no faff of adding a million features that most non-techie users won’t need.  It just focusses on surfing the web in a secure and convenient way.  Being built like Safari is no bad thing and in many ways will dent any chances of the Windows version of that browser gaining any real traction.  It’s still very early days and it will take a while to filter through to the mainstream in numbers that’ll worry any other browser makers (I’m looking at you Microsoft) but by leveraging their brand Google stands a real chance of gaining a large chunk of market share faster than Firefox did.

There are hints that Google has more in mind with this, such as saving desktop shortcuts to apps such as GMail and the integrated use of Gears, which then begins to blur the perception of these apps into being something that can be used offline which you can sync up seamlessly.  With no plug-ins or developer tools (aside from the firebug-like Inspector) as yet, I think most people will stick with their preferred choice for now but it’s worth keeping an eye on how this one plays out.  I think when less technical users get a hold of this they may find the user experience compelling enough to make the switch.

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3rd September, 2008