How Chrome Changed the Web Overnight

Nobody at Webmonkey expected to wake up and experience an internet game change today, but with Google’s semi-accidental launch of the Chrome browser Sunday, that’s exactly what we got. We barely had enough time to clean up the coffee spittle on our monitors.

It started with a very candid and thoughtful comic. It used drawn characters of Chrome designers to eloquently describe the browser’s inner workings. If it wasn’t in comic form, it would read like a computer science lecture, and you’d be asleep in the time it takes to say “garbage collection.” However, in comic form, the technical document gently exposes you us to just what we’re getting into.

So what are we getting into with Chrome? Perhaps web 3.0.

The way it manages tabs, the way it treats errors, its blinding speed — when Firefox 3 was released, it made Firefox 2 seems slow. Chrome does the same thing to Firefox 3. There’s no doubt this is a game changer in the world of web development. Even the surprise announcement lent a hand to making this as big of news as web news can get.

It may sound hyperbolic, but there is some serious machinery going on under the hood. Let’s break it down.

Chrome is essentially four open source projects bundled together: Chrome is the internet operating system, V8 the JavaScript engine, Gears for web developers and Webkit used for rendering HTML.

  1. Chrome — This is the first browser that incorporates the technology used in your desktop. Chrome basically acts like an operating system by treating tabs like applications. Each tab has its own protected memory, permissions and runs as its own process. If one misbehaves, you can pull up the Chrome task manager, see the processor and memory usage of the misbehaving site and close it on the spot.

    A very simple way to stress how revolutionary this is is to consider the fact that if you have a multi-core processor (as many desktop and laptops have these days), two tabs can render HTML and JavaScript independently on each processor, just as if you were running multiple desktop applications.

    This is similar to what Windows NT, and later XP, did with its protected memory in 2001. Protected memory was a popular selling point because it stabilized applications and allowed for better multi-threading. The same benefits apply to the multiple tabs of Chrome.

  2. V8 — Like Pinocchio became a real boy, JavaScript becomes a real programming language. Before, JavaScript was just a lightweight scripting solution that provided some cool effects. However, the way browsers were designed to handle it was for very moderate usage, like menus and simple interactive elements. AJAX web applications pushed the boundaries of what JavaScript was meant for. Google saw the potential in JavaScript, and grew impatient waiting for browsers to be able to handle what it was capable of. V8 puts away any doubt JavaScript can handle what you can give it. It even questions the need for add-ons like Adobe Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight to enable rich web applications.

    Instead of virtually interpreting JavaScript, V8 compiles the code and managed to build a class/object relationship in the process, just like a grown up programming language. It runs blazingly fast, especially with those AJAX-y web applications you leave running in your browser all day.

    It has even included benchmarks to prove it.

  3. Gears — Because Gears has been around for over a year, there isn’t much to Gears that hasn’t already been said. Gears adapts some of the cooler functions of HTML 5.0 standards and adds an offline element to web surfing. It acts as the web developer friendly section of the Chrome package, enabling web developers to design faster and more powerful web applications. It is only fitting the technology is built into the browser.
  4. Webkit — Webkit is the only non-Google open source project included in the browser package. It stems from an Linux browser named Konqueror and, most recently, used for Apple’s Safari browser. Developers claimed the memory management and speed were among its top sellers. They also claimed the last thing web developers need is another rendering engine.

    They might be right. However, it is a bit of a slap in the face to Mozilla’s Gecko rendering engine. Given the financial and collaborative relationship Google has had with Mozilla in the past, it must be a hard pill to swallow in Firefox-land.

For its heavily asynchronous web applications to run better on a browser, Google acknowledged the browser needed to be redesigned from the ground up. It could’ve asked Mozilla to comply, and most likely it would have been rejected by Mozilla. Instead, it did the heavy lifting itself.

Much of the industry is now scrambling to try and figure out the Microsoftian threat Google poses. On the surface, Google is trying to redefine your window to the internet. When you consider how it deals with memory and how it protects your processes, it is, for all intents and purposes, the first successful combination of browser and operating system.

That said, how much of a threat can Google be if I (or you, or your neighbor) can jump in and write code for it? Releasing it under the BSD license, and even encouraging Internet Explorer and Firefox to steal code directly from the source, proves that Google wants nothing other than the capability to make their online properties more powerful. Google co-founder Larry Page sees Chrome as a way to increase competition and empower innovation in the long run.

“If there was only one choice [of browser], there wouldn’t be a lot of innovation out there,” Page proclaimed at a Chrome presentation Tuesday. “The web is really our connection to you, so it’s really important to us”

Sergey Brin, Google’s other co-founder, agrees: “Our business does well if there is a lot of healthy web usage … Our business does well if [people] are using the web and the internet a lot. Any usage of the internet through Chrome is a business win for us.”

The Chrome release and the way it treats web pages as applications is so innovative, it might have jumped years ahead of iterative advances from current browser offerings. It changes the game.

To the competition’s advantage, users may be slow to flock to Chrome. However, once they take it for a test drive, the speed of AJAX applications alone will set the bar high. It puts some heavy pressure on the browser competition to catch-up overnight.

Apparently, Mozilla developers were given an early peak at Chrome prior to the launch. How did it go? I’m sure the thoughts of threats swimmed in the minds of Firefox developers who have been working very hard on advancing browser technology for the last five years. Luckily, when you put any group of engineers together, the one common bond is on the coolness of technology. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Firefox drawing board looks a little different today.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it didn’t start incorporating the groundbreaking work done on the Chrome and V8 source — something Chrome developers want badly. They’re eager for this technology to hit the street, and they don’t care too much how it gets there.

What Internet Explorer will do with this information is anyone’s guess. Their closed source browser sports some definite “me too” functions and is advancing in speed, but Microsoft has real potential to incorporate the Chrome multi-processing technology in its Windows operating system. More likely, Microsoft will take the ideas and develop its own counter attack, however slowly it may take.

There is one fact with literally no doubt — the web has become a whole lot faster, more powerful and mind-numbingly fast overnight.