Google Chrome: The interface is beside the point

There’s been a lot chatter around the office and internet about Chrome, the recently launched (or leaked) Google Web browser. I’ve got to say that much of it misses the aspect of the application that I find most inspirational. Google Chrome exists for one reason and one reason only: To provide a framework for web-based applications to look, feel, and act like desktop applications.

It doesn’t seem that Google has real interest in replacing IE or Firefox as the dominant web browser. (The tech business press can’t see beyond this point). Instead, Google wants to see the technological underpinnings of Chrome adopted by mainstream browsers. The Chrome team is explicitly inviting other browsers to use their code base — they’ve open sourced everything — and they have explicitly acknowledged adopting best-of-breed UI features from others.

So how does Chrome elevate web apps to desktop app status? Six ways: Separate processes for each tab; Google Gears for local storage, offline functionality and “native app” behaviors; application shortcuts; a modern JavaScript virtual machine; and minimal-to-absent browser interface, aka “chrome”. Let’s look at each one in more detail, with snippets from Scott McCloud’s fantastic graphic novella product tour.

chrome-process.jpgChrome provides a separate processes for each window and tab, just like the OS provides a separate process for each application. As a result, hitting a page that slows down or crashes your browser doesn’t take down your mail, spreadsheet, and photo editor.

Gears lets you work offline. You can edit your presentation in the plane on the way to the client or read your mail at the cafe with spotty WiFi, and developers can create web apps that function more like desktop apps.

Application shortcuts tear web apps from the browser and place them along side your other desktop applications. Want to work on a document? Fire up Google Docs. Check your schedule? Launch your MobileMe calendar. Each app is represented in your taskbar or dock just like any other.

AJAX web applications have elevated javascript into a fully functional programming language, but browsers today just aren’t optimized to run it. The V8 JavaScript virtual machine is dramatically more proficient, robust, and stable.

Chrome? What chrome? Web applications don’t need back buttons, or favorites, or search boxes, or bookmark bars, or Google Toolbars, or… They are self-contained, and any browser interface is a distraction. As a browser, Chrome strips away everything it can. When apps run from applications shortcuts, there is no browser interface at all.

Google is practically screaming “Take these technologies and run.” They are doing a great job of promoting the availability and advantages of their approach. In addition to the various overviews at the main Chrome site there’s extensive documentation at, the open source project behind Chrome. There, the introduction to the User Experience section sums up everything I’ve been talking about:

In the long term, we think of Chromium as a tabbed window manager or shell for the web rather than a browser application. We avoid putting things into our UI in the same way you would hope that Apple and Microsoft would avoid putting things into the standard window frames of applications on their operating systems … The tab is our equivalent of a desktop application’s title bar; the frame containing the tabs is a convenient mechanism for managing groups of those applications. In future, there may be other tab types that do not host the normal browser toolbar.

With that, Google welcomes us all to the age of cloud computing, where your applications and data are services seamlessly available locally and over the network. For Chrome, the browser just isn’t the point.

Tim McCoy

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