Anthony Doesburg: Chrome- The trusty Corolla of web browsers

Late last year, web search company Google entered the browser market with the release of Chrome. Users will be immediately struck by its pared-down user interface, whose design can be credited in large part to Aucklander Ben Goodger.

Goodger, a software engineering graduate of the University of Auckland, cut his browser development teeth on Netscape before becoming lead developer of Firefox. Now he's in charge of Chrome's look and feel, as he explained during a visit to Auckland earlier in the month from his home in California.

What's the underlying thinking in Chrome's user interface?

When we designed the user interface (UI), we focused on minimising the "bulk" of the browser UI - for example, the toolbars, tabs, etc. This is because we wanted to put more emphasis on the web page or app being viewed. So we actually had this kind of ironic mantra given the product name: "content, not chrome".

The biggest theme applied in the development in our UI is "reduction". We reduced the number of buttons, options, and other specific controls that we found were either unnecessary or cumbersome. We tried to come up with some inventive ways to expose browser features that fit into the flow of existing user actions.

For example, when you visit a site that you've done a search from before, like Trade Me.co.nz, we show a tip in the omnibox on the right side allowing you to transform the omnibox into a special Trade Me-specific search box with a single key press (Tab).

We also spent a lot of time making sure the user interface feels responsive - note how fast the browser starts up, and how little you see the hourglass when using it.

To what extent have ideas from Firefox made their way into Chrome?

There is naturally a cross-pollination of good ideas between all browsers, and Chrome is no different.

There are many things Firefox and other browsers do right, and it makes sense to emulate those things where we don't think we have a substantially better approach.

For example, the fundamental properties of bookmarks are fairly similar across all browsers because that's something that people have found useful over time.

What is it about Chrome that Google thinks will win users over from Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari?

We think Chrome is a compelling browser option for people who are looking for speed, stability and security.

For speed, we used the WebKit rendering engine, which is the fastest page renderer available today. We then added V8, a new JavaScript engine, to boost the performance of the next generation of rich web applications. We focused on making the platform robust and stable so people can run many of these rich apps at the same time without having to deal with browser crashes.

Finally, we built the foundation of a more secure browser by "sandboxing" each tab to make it doubly hard for hackers to find bugs to exploit.

Given that web browsers don't make anyone any money, what's the benefit to Google of having one?

Anything that helps people to have a better experience online is a boon. When people have a satisfying online experience they tend to [spend more time there and do more], which is good news for us.

Rod Drury of New Zealand web-based accountancy software company Xero reckons Chrome will be the software release of the year because it has the potential to shift computing off the desktop into the cloud. Is he getting carried away or is that what Google's intention is with Chrome?

We think web-based applications have certain advantages - for example, you can access your information from more locations, and more easily collaborate with others when creating documents.

Creating a richer web platform allows more of the rich applications that have traditionally been bound to desktop software to move online. People get to benefit from the location-independence and ease of collaboration with more and more of their stuff.

Insofar as we can help improve web standards through projects like Gears and Chrome, we are happy to do so.

Chrome's Incognito option looks like Private Browsing on Safari and the InPrivate Browsing feature in Internet Explorer 8. What's its purpose?

People can use Incognito mode any time they want to view a page that they don't want to leave traces on their computer ...

Personally I find Incognito is particularly useful for multiple Gmail profiles. I have a business and personal Gmail account, and can be signed into both simultaneously by logging into one in an Incognito window because the cookie stores are independent.

What changes are in the works, and when are they due?

The next update to Chrome will come with a new version of WebKit, and many other enhancements like Autofill and RSS support.

Are versions for Linux and Mac OS X far away?

We're working hard on it. A number of engineers are contributing to the Mac and Linux versions now, both inside and outside Google, and we're committed to doing a great job for users of these platforms. I'm a Mac user myself at home (though I do most of my development work on Windows), so I am following this with keen interest.

Anthony Doesburg is an Auckland technology journalist

- NZ Herald

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