I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t quite understand why Google brought out its Chrome browser this past (2008) September, but I’m starting to get it.
There was a lot of speculation about Chrome when it was released; mainly about how it was a full-frontal attack on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.
I don’t think so.
I now see Chrome as an indirect attack on MS Windows – not a direct attack, but a way to trivialize the underlying OS the browser is running on. Since Windows still runs about, what?, 85% of the personal computers out there, it’s an attack on Windows, but not directly targeting Windows.
It targets – or ignores – the underlying OS.
Let’s look back at this in historical context, with the historical context called Netscape Navigator.
Back when the web was taking off, the browser of (only) choice was NSCA’s Mosaic; Mosaic-wrangler Marc Andreessen then left the U of I (NSCA’s home) to co-found Netscape and produce the first real browser anyone could use. Netscape flourished.
Then Bill Gates had the “internet moment,” where he realized that – at some point – all applications could/would be run inside the browser, making the underlying OS irrelevant. So IE was born (ironically, based on the Mosaic code that had been licensed to a Northbrook, IL company called SpyGlass – Netscape was written by Andressen and other Mosaic members, but from scratch), the Netscape killer.
It took awhile and some dubious legal moves (OS bundling), but IE crushed Netscape.
Yet – ironically – at this time, the reality of the web taking over desktop apps/the underlying OS was slim, and never really materialized during the “kill Netscape” period. This is part of the reason that MS has subsequently dragged its feet on putting out new versions of the browser – IE 6 (piece of crap) to 7 (finally! tabs!) was years; IE 8 is still in beta.
Today, Google is poised – with its suite of productivity tools and other browser-based goodies (Google Maps, Google Analytics to mention just two) – to make the underlying OS immaterial. Run Google spreadsheets on Linux or Windows; same effect. Analytics is just HTML and Flash and does all sorts of kewl stuff.
So I can log into my Google account on any virtually any personal computer in the world, and I can access my Gmail, my spreadsheets, document manager (in case you haven’t noticed, Google Docs is a CVS repository, File Manager, and collaboration tool) and so on.
The OS doesn’t matter.
And here comes Google Chrome to put the final touches on it – the one odd feature on Chrome was the pre-emptive multi-tasking of each Chrome tab. Sure, Firefox, Safari, Opera, IE etc have tabs, but Chrome puts each tab in a new process.
Bottom line: If one tab crashes, overloads, hangs or whatever, it doesn’t overly impact the other tabs. It like running Word and Adobe Photoshop. If Word dies, it doesn’t (shouldn’t) take down Photoshop. Separate apps.
Today, when (for example) Firefox hangs, kill process and restart Firefox. The restore feature makes this pretty painless, right?
OK, now pretend you have four tabs open – you’re working on them all – one a Google Doc, one a Google Spreadsheet, one Gmail, one your bank account.
In Firefox (the best browser currently), you kill the browser and restart/restore. But what about your changes. This is akin to taking down MS Word, MS Excel, Outlook, and your bank’s website at once. If your MS computer did this, it’d be the BOS – “The Blue Screen of Death.” (Or, on Macs, the “bomb” icon.) Ungood. Unsaved changes could well be lost.
With each tab a new process on Chrome, this is mostly avoided.
So I can pop open a Chrome browser on any supported OS – without any knowledge of how to use that OS (beyond launching Chrome) – and I can run all my applications in Chrome. Word-processing docs, spreadsheets, email…all without giving a shit whether we’re running Windoze/Mac OS/Linux or whatever.
The browser is the OS, in a manner of speaking.
And when a new application comes along – say, a photo processing app – the maker can just have it as a web app. Why compile/shrink wrap it for 40 different OSs/OS flavors (Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows 64-bit XP, Window Home Media Center…).
And it must be scaring the crap out of Microsoft.
THAT is what I think about Chrome today.