Google I/O Will Be Chrome’s Time to Shine
In the year and a half since it first emerged, Google’s Chrome browser has matured from a thinner-than-air experiment that only ran on Windows into a stable, full-featured browser that works on all major operating systems and is available in 50 languages.
No longer just the new kid on the block, Chrome is now poised to become even more formidable. We expect Google to show off some new enhancements that would better enable it to handle the next version of the web next week at Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference taking place in San Francisco.
Chrome is continually being updated, but recent developments in web video, social web technologies, HTML5 and new data APIs point to more capabilities making their way into the browser.
“What we care most about with Chrome is driving the growth of web apps forward,” says Google director of engineering David Glazer.
The emerging HTML5 standard brings a range of new innovations to browser-based apps, as outlined during the 90-minute keynote that opened last year’s edition of Google I/O. The various elements in HTML5 let browsers play audio and video without plug-ins, determine a user’s location, provide offline access to web apps, and play animations.
Even though the HTML5 specification is incomplete and still only in draft form, it’s widely supported. Firefox, Safari and Opera have long been able to utilize many of HTML5′s capabilities, and Microsoft Internet Explorer 9, due later this year, will include support for most of the HTML5 stack.
“Chrome is in a horse race with other browsers, and all of them are pushing the state of art of the modern web and HTML5 forward,” Glazer says. “Users are winning because of this.”
Mozilla VP of engineering Mike Shaver, who works on Firefox, acknowledges that while there isn’t exactly a Kumbaya spirit between browser makers, everyone on the web is reaping the benefits of the stiff competition.
“In the browser development sphere right now there are a ton of things being experimented with and a bunch of that stuff is reaching users,” Shaver says. “So much of this is happening in ways that we can all take advantage of to improve the web for people regardless of which browser they’re using.”
Even though it’s in an enviable position of being feature-rich, fast and mostly HTML5-ready, Chrome can’t afford to be caught standing still.
Neither Glazer nor anyone else at Google would talk about possible announcements coming out of next week’s conference, but we should expect to see Chrome tricked out with some new capabilities.
Most in the web development community are looking for Google to release the VP8 video codec under an open source license. Google acquired the technology earlier this year when it purchased the video company On2, and VP8 is believed to be free of the patent issues dogging Theora and H.264. Were Google to make it freely available and begin supporting it in Chrome, VP8 would mean a huge boost to video on the web.
Mozilla’s Mike Shaver is keeping a close eye on Google’s plans for the VP8 codec.
“If VP8 is released under open source, unencumbered terms, you’ll see us supporting that too, both in the browser and in developing it,” he says.
Firefox currently supports the Theora codec for native web video playback, but it doesn’t support H.264 because of its licensing restrictions.
Google may be ready to give open web video a big push, but the company is aware of browser-based video’s limitations and is playing the field accordingly. Google recently announced it was working with Adobe to incorporate the Flash Player into Chrome, ensuring users will be able to watch videos on the web whether they’re served with HTML5 or Flash.
“Cutting the latency in half is more important to the user experience than adding any one specific feature,” says Google’s Glazer.
Making web apps run faster is of primary importance to a company which relies heavily on them — not just products like Gmail, Docs, Wave and search, but also all of the external apps powered by Google’s 60-plus APIs. Google processes between 4 and 5 billion API hits every day, according to Glazer.
It’s expected that Google will make the API for Google Buzz, its latest experiment in the social networking space, publicly available at I/O. (The API is currently in closed beta).
On the same front, it’s possible Google will begin building identity management tools into the browser that make logging in, finding friends and sharing on social sites more seamless while keeping those interactions under the users’ control.
Dion Almaer, founder of Ajaxian.com and a former Mozilla engineer who is now the director of developer relations at Palm, says he expects all the major browsers to make this “social leap” and start shipping with more identity tools.
“Mozilla is taking an active position on the notion of data ownership (e.g. you should own it, compared to a web site) and also believes that the browser can be a true ‘user agent’ and do a lot more for you,” he says in an e-mail. “I think that Chrome will follow here too in certain ways.”
Again, Google wouldn’t say what it is or isn’t announcing next week. But Google’s Glazer can’t see how anyone would be shocked if Chrome were to get a boost.
“I don’t think we need to make any surprises with Chrome,” he says. “You can expect it to do more of what it’s doing now. Open standards are good, interoperability across the web is good, speed is good, being available everywhere is good.”
Google I/0 takes place Wednesday, May 19 and Thursday, May 20 at Moscone West in San Francisco. Watch for coverage on Webmonkey and across Wired.com.