Google Takes On IE, Firefox With Chrome Web Browser

ChromeIn a rather surprising move, Google has announced that it will dive into the browser wars with its own web browser, dubbed Chrome.

Google Chrome will be free, open source and, at least for the time being, limited to Windows users. A beta version for Windows should be available for testing early Tuesday afternoon. Google says that it’s already hard at work on Mac and Linux versions, but hasn’t offered a timeline for either.

Chrome is a browser built to empower web applications. It features a new approach to page rendering that isolates web applications inside each of the browser’s tabs — a crashing web app might cause a single tab to crash, but that won’t affect anything outside that tab. The rest of the browser remains stable.

One of the biggest complaints about web apps is the stability of the browser. When you’re doing mission-critical work in a web app and the browser crashes, it isn’t an annoyance, it’s a deal breaker — e-mails are lost, documents have to be rewritten, web forms need to be filled out again. Chrome’s ability to sidestep a full crash could prove a huge boon to Google’s bid to replace desktop apps with its own web-based alternatives.

Many users remain skeptical of online apps, which require an internet connection to be useful. But Chrome has that covered as well. It will ship with Gears, Google’s offline data storage tool, already integrated. Gears is available for most existing browsers as an add-on.

According to the official announcement, the new Chrome web browser is Google’s effort to “start over from scratch” and build a web browser that’s specifically geared toward today’s complex web apps — which, of course, form the core of Google’s business.

Chrome’s announcement came in the form of a comic book which was accidentally e-mailed out before the Chrome team was ready to launch. Apparently realizing that there was no point in trying to cover its e-mail gaffe, Google quickly made an official announcement and prepped the beta release.

The result is a shot across Mozilla’s bow, but the clear target is Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. As longtime Firefox evangelist Chris Messina argues, the real news in Chrome is that “the web will rev at the speed of the frameworks and the specifications, and will no longer be tied to the monopoly player’s broken rendering engine.”

Microsoft’s next browser, Internet Explorer 8, is currently in beta as well. It will feature a tab-isolation feature similar to Chrome’s when it ships at the end of the year.

While the larger target may be Internet Explorer, Chrome isn’t sparing Mozilla. Despite its recently renewed allegiance with Mozilla, Google’s Chrome will use the WebKit rendering engine (which also powers Safari). In the comic book which Google is using to explain the Chrome concept, the company quite blatantly rejects Mozilla’s Gecko rendering engine as bloated and overly complex.

However, despite using WebKit, Chrome looks to be a very different beast than Safari, Firefox, Opera or other familiar browsers.

The primary difference between Chrome and browsers you’re already using, is Chrome’s multiprocess rendering model. Essentially each tab (or single window) in Chrome runs as a separate process. The net result is, according to Google, “a bit more memory upfront,” but far less memory used over time.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Chrome’s rendering model is that it subtly shifts the blame for crashes and poor performance away from the browser itself and puts it squarely on the site causing the problem. To further the idea that sites are responsible, Google is including a “Task Manager” where you’ll be able to see which page, apps and sites are using the most memory, downloading the most data and so on.

If Chrome catches on with users, web developers may be forced to write better, more efficient code or face the wrath of Google Chrome users.

Google’s multitask approach makes Chrome much more like an operating system than a browser. While we wouldn’t go so far as to say that Chrome is a “Windows Killer” (which doesn’t make much sense given that Chrome requires Windows to run), it definitely looks like a key component for Google’s assault on Microsoft Office, Outlook and other desktop apps that Google is trying to duplicate on the web.

Given that Google is a major Mozilla funder and Firefox backer, for the company to turn around and launch its own browser seems to many like an expression of frustration with Firefox’s lingering issues — stability, memory footprint, performance and more.

As Messina puts it, “I just can’t read this any other way than to think that Google’s finally fed up waiting around for Firefox to get their act together.”

For its part, Mozilla claims to be unconcerned with Chrome. Mozilla CEO John Lilly claims he isn’t worried about Google’s entry into the browser market, though he does admit that the long-term implications are unclear. For the time being anyway, Lilly sees Chrome as yet another competitor. “There’s been competition for a while now, and this increases that,” he writes, “so it means that more than ever, we need to build software that people care about and love.”

[Also see AP's coverage on Wired.com]