Bring on the browser wars: Why I'm overjoyed about Google Chrome.

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Sept. 4 2008 4:29 PM

Bring on the Browser Wars!

Why I'm overjoyed about Google Chrome.

Screenshot of Google Chrome. Click image to expand.
Google Chrome

At the turn of the century, Microsoft vanquished Netscape in the browser wars. For a while, that victory looked permanent. The battle had been ugly: A federal court found that Microsoft illegally used its Windows monopoly to expand Internet Explorer's market share; Netscape never recovered from its loss. For most computer users, though, the browser wars were sublime: The Web browser was invented in 1992, and within five years, with hundreds of developers at both Microsoft and Netscape pumping out code, browsers became fast, stable, and capable of some very neat tricks.

These days, Web designers boast about all they can do with AJAX, the set of technologies that allow Web sites to emulate desktop-app behavior like drag-and-drop (think Google Maps or Yahoo Mail). AJAX runs on code that was created by Microsoft and Netscape as competitive weapons during the browser wars. Yes, today's glorious Web was made possible by yesterday's bruising business confrontation. All of us should rejoice, then, at the dawn of Browser War II.

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On Tuesday, Google released a Web browser called Chrome. This new piece of software enters a crowded field of browsers looking for your love. Microsoft will soon offer the final revision of Internet Explorer 8, which is currently in beta release. (Both Chrome and IE 8 run only on Windows, though Google says it's creating versions for other platforms.) In June, Mozilla put out Version 3 of its popular open-source, cross-platform Firefox browser, and Version 3.1 is available in alpha *. The Norwegian software company Opera also recently released its latest eponymous, innovative, cult-hit browser. And Apple is now working on Version 4 of Safari for Mac and Windows.

All this competition is great news, because the world desperately needs a better Web browser. For at least four years, Firefox has been the gold standard among techies; I've been using it as my primary browser for at least that long. For a while, I loved it. I appreciated its smart, clean user interface, its tabs and keyboard shortcuts, and most of all—Firefox's killer feature—its ability to run a smorgasbord of useful third-party add-ons. But Firefox is hobbled by a couple of major flaws. It hogs system resources: Use it for a while, and it eats up huge swaths of your computer's memory, eventually becoming as slow as the Web browser on your iPhone. Firefox is also prone to crashing: Load up an errant Web page, and you risk bringing the program to a halt. (This problem makes session-recovery add-ons like Tab Mix Plus essential. *)

Admittedly, I'm not an ordinary Web user—I use my browser as a research tool, mail app, calendar, media player, and a tabbed to-do list. At any point during the day, I've got three or four browser windows open, each with 20 to 30 Web pages running in tabs. I understand that this bespeaks a kind of insanity, but with Web sites growing ever more useful and Web users growing ever more addicted, it's the sort of insanity that afflicts an increasing number people.

The wonderful thing about Google's new browser, then, is that it's been built with the singular purpose of handling a hefty workload. While I'm not yet ready to switch to Chrome as my permanent browser—it's got some odd user interface quirks, lacks a few useful features, and doesn't have Firefox's hordes of plug-ins—I've found it to be delightfully fast and stable. So far, it's run everything that I've thrown at it without bringing my computer to a halt. For that alone, I think Google's on to something.

If you're into comics about computer code, the 38-page book Google commissioned to unveil Chrome—illustrated by cartoonist Scott McCloud—does a fine job explaining what's new here. The gist is that most Web browsers do a lot of "single-threaded" work: Much of the processing is controlled by a few subroutines that can do only one thing at a time, which is why your entire Firefox session slows down when a single tab out of many encounters some kind of error.

Chrome, on the other hand, runs each big bit of code in its own dedicated "process"—distinct computational threads that enjoy their own memory resources. Just as Windows runs Photoshop and iTunes at the same time without letting each bother the other, Chrome lets its processes do different tasks in parallel. If one Chrome tab is busy loading Google Reader, another Chrome tab won't be crimped while refreshing the New York Times site. Best of all, if one process crashes, your full browser session remains intact. I've inadvertently learned many different ways to make Firefox crash; none of these tricks worked on Chrome. The best I could do was crash a single process—this brought down an individual tab, but Chrome kept running.

There are several more under-the-hood improvements. Google claims that Chrome beats other browsers at "garbage collection"— the computer-science term for how a program gets rid of memory it no longer needs. Better garbage collection significantly reduces how much of your computer's resources an application consumes. Google also wrote its own JavaScript virtual machine—the engine that runs all the fancy AJAX code that powers complex new Web apps—that it claims is faster and more stable than other browsers' scripting engines. Though I found Chrome speedy and less demanding on my system's resources than Firefox 3.0, its advantage isn't unsurpassable—Lifehacker's tests give the memory and speed edge to Firefox 3.1.

You aren't likely to notice Chrome's tech improvements when you load it up for the first time. What you'll see is a minimalist app, one missing several features that you're used to in other browsers. For example, Chrome presents no good way to manage bookmarks. Still, there are some innovative features. Instead of an address bar and a search box, Chrome uses only one input bar in which you're free to type either something like "slate.com" or "slate article on sarah palin." Chrome is smart enough to figure out when to take you to a Web page and when to perform a Web search. It also lists other recently visited sites containing slate, palin, or other like terms.

I found some of Google's other user-interface tweaks more annoying than useful. Chrome places its row of tabs in the title bar, an area that in most apps isn't used for anything other than displaying the name of the program. This saves space on your screen, but it also eradicates one of the main ways people have grown accustomed to using tabs in browsers—you can't double-click the tab bar to open a new tab, like you can on every other multi-tab browser. (Double-clicking the bar in Chrome resizes the window.)

This is a quibble, obviously. Chrome is very much a work in progress, a beta program that I expect will improve dramatically in the months to come. It shares two advantages with Firefox: Chrome is open-source, meaning outside developers are free to extend and improve it. And Chrome includes a plug-in infrastructure that lets people create add-ons. Because it's new, neither of these features is very important yet. But if Chrome catches on, developers will likely build these and other great programs for it; theoretically, people could even take the best bits of Firefox and Chrome and build a single awesome browser.

For Google, Microsoft, and Apple, the browser fight is a means to other ends. Microsoft, which holds more than three-quarters of the browser market, looks at the Web as an extension of its operating system. As more of our programs move online, Microsoft fears that we might have little reason to stick to Windows; it sees control of the browser as a way to control the future of software development. Google seems to want to be in the browser business to fight Microsoft. The company's revenue comes entirely from the Web, so it's got to be wary that most of its customers come through software created by its main rival. (Google substantially underwrites both Firefox and Opera, which both feature Google's search engine as the default.) Apple, meanwhile, needs a browser to beef up its own platform—not only on the Mac but also on its phones and iPods.

Sure, these aims aren't entirely noble. But who cares? As the giants duke it out to come up with the best product, they'll copy and improve upon each other's innovations, bringing new features to all browsers. Chrome's immunity to crashing, for instance, is sure to push both Mozilla and Microsoft to improve their browsers' stability. Perhaps soon you'll be able to load up any browser you like and watch two dozen YouTube videos at once without fearing a crash—you know, just like the Web was always meant to be used.

Correction, Sept. 7, 2008: This piece originally stated that Firefox 3.1 is "available in beta." The current release is an alpha version. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Sept. 8, 2008:This article incorrectly referred to a Firefox add-on as Tabs Mix Plus. It is Tab Mix Plus. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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