Google Chrome and more…

Slate online recently had a good piece about the new Google web browser, Chrome. In itself it is a fascinating example of how functionality is being focussed in single applications or suites. We see something analogous in Microsoft Office and CS3. There it is suites of applications that attempt under a single title to deliver as comprehensive a solution as is feasible in their respective areas. With Google Chrome the situation is a little different, but not entirely. By tying a browser and a search engine together under the Google brand the user is pointed towards an all encompassing Google surfing ‘experience’.

Whether it works is an interesting question. For those of us who use Safari or Firefox, as I do on a daily basis, the Google search field on the toolbar is now an essential component. But would I step from those two applications to Chrome? I’m dubious that I would – and I’m not likely to any time soon since they have yet to deliver a Mac compatible version. In any event it is not as if there isn’t already considerable competition in the area. As Farhad Manjoo writes in Slate:

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 beta. 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.

That it is so crowded is unsurprising. Each offers essentially the same functionality but come from different roots. Firefox is open source, Microsoft and Apple have their own bespoke browsers. Smaller companies and corporations offer theirs. It’s not difficult to see this as an existential battle between large corporations, or at least a part of their broader struggles writ large.

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.

The latter point is of some significance. Apple has been remarkably astute at maintaining a strong grip on the software used on its communications devices. That they function well is almost a given, that they leave little or no space for competitors is self-evident. And the sheer visibility of these in the public space, perhaps even more so than their competitors such as Google and Microsoft gives them a key advantage in the future. The much critiqued ‘halo effect’ around Apple continues to seemingly extend itself.

And it is not as if they’re without faults. As Manjoo notes:

…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 Tabs Mix Plus essential.)

So it’s not that Firefox, Safari (or indeed Internet Explorer which I haven’t used in years on any regular basis for various reasons) or A.N. Other are particularly bad at what they do. Indeed to paraphrase Barack Obama speaking in a somewhat different context, they’re good enough. But not quite there yet.

That said, the gains from new applications are largely marginal, at least in this field. Manjoo believes that Chrome is less likely to crash. That’s probably true, but one wonders how it will fare in six months or a year.

While on this topic it is worth noting the manner in which Google sought to explain the new browser. They took a fairly innovative approach in asking cartoonist Scott McCloud to illustrate a 38 page book on the features of the application.

McCloud is an ideal person to complete this task. His interaction with the web has been considerable over the years from producing webcomics to experimenting with visual forms that are only possible in a flexible online medium. A visit to his website indicates his free-flowing approach to visual imagery in that context.

It’s a fine piece of work, as one might expect. McCloud has a clean explicatory style of illustration that generously uses white space and subtle tones of gray and blue to underline the content. His characters are rendered in a representational but clearly cartoon-like style that softens them. The overall approach is entirely suitable for a document which seeks to explain the interior processes of a web browser – and does so in a clever and creative way. What is striking is that nowhere in it is the Google logo, a visual device which has gained near iconic significance, and it is possible to raise some questions as to the integration of the new Google Chrome logo, a not particularly exciting three dimensional formulation of blue, red, yellow and green.

As an ironic postscript, I’m finding accessing Google on a work computer I use almost impossible. The following message appears every time I initiate a search…

We’re sorry… but your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer virus or spyware application. To protect our users, we can’t process your request right now.

I’ll bet if I checked out the Google Chrome comic it might explain everything…

Ciarán Swan

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