December 11, 2008
That's the blink of an eye compared with Gmail's gestation in beta, which began in April 2004 and continues to this day. And the speed at which Google is moving underscores Chrome's strategic value to the company.
Google describes its business as search, ads, and apps. Search and ads, it dominates. The online applications market remains contested, not to mention the mobile applications market. Google needs a browser of its own, so it isn't dependent on the goodwill of Apple, Microsoft, or Mozilla for access to its users.
"We're going to rip the beta label off with our 15th release," said Brian Rakowski, product manager for Google Chrome, in a phone interview. "The engineering team has been fixing a lot of bugs and working on stability, working on making the product really rock solid. We're pretty excited about that."
To some extent, the 1.0 designation is meaningless. Rakowski said that Google isn't going to spend a lot of time talking about numbered iterations. "We're trying, throughout the whole Chrome development process, to release features very quickly, so we have a lot more stuff coming down the pipe," he said. "The main point of this is that it's a rock-solid product that's ready for anybody to use, not just early adopters."
In other words, Chrome is both done and a work in progress. Mac and Linux versions are still being worked on, with no declared target date for release. New features, like an API for extensions, also are under development. And then there are the bugs. Google's Chrome bug-tracking system lists more than 2,400 open issues. Not all of them are bugs and not all are serious bugs, but clearly plenty of significant issues remain.
"There's no question that we have a lot of work to do," Rakowski conceded. "If you compare it to other projects of this scope, it's not unusual to have many thousands of open bugs. What we try to do is triage those bugs carefully and make sure that we're taking care of the most important ones, the ones that are affecting most users. Lots of those bugs have been targeted for this release to close."
Fair enough. Chrome feels fast and stable, at least far more so than the days after its initial release, when a large number of problems surfaced, alienating users not accustomed to Google's release-early-and-often habit.
Perhaps the most meaningful consequence of Chrome's 1.0 designation is that Google will be able to pitch its browser to distribution partners as a finished product, rather than the noodling of a few engineers over the weekend.
Chrome was released early to generate user feedback and that data has shaped the 1.0 release. "Managing your bookmarks is one of the things we heard loud and clear from people," said Rakowski. "They have lots and lots of bookmarks and want to be able to export them and organize them into folders more easily. So there's a bookmarks manager people can use now. Some people were interested in having more fine-grained control over some of the privacy settings, like what information gets sent up to servers at different times, so we grouped all the privacy settings together for the user to be able to make all those choices in one place. There're also a host of small improvements, like making pop-up blocking work better. There's a lot of refinement based on user feedback that should make people feel more comfortable using the existing product."
Making people feel more comfortable using Chrome also requires some measure of security. Unlike other browsers, Chrome was designed to compartmentalize processes, an architectural security feature not unlike the multiple hull compartments in the Titanic. Of course, we all know how well that worked out. Google, however, is aware that the security innovations in its browser need to be tested and that other vendors making software that connects to Chrome have to be improve the security of their software too.
"Security is an area where we've actually been very proud," said Rakowski. "When we launched we were very excited about the architecture, but it's unproven software. As you know, you can never make foolproof claims about the security of unreleased software. So over the last couple months, we've been able to see how it has performed in the wild. It has gotten a lot of scrutiny and we have a lot more confidence in the security of Chrome now. Also, we're really proud of how the engineering team has been able to respond. There have been a few things that have come up through the security research community and they've been able to fix those very quickly and issue patches in what we consider very admirable time frames ... hours, not days.
"One of the cool things about the multiprocess architecture and the sandboxing is that we can run plug-ins in their own separate process, which is great," Rakowski continued. "It provides some insulation for security purposes but also for stability. If one of those plug-ins goes down for whatever reason, the rest of the browser can still continue to function normally. In terms of sandboxing, plug-ins have a lot of capabilities and surface area, so it's pretty tough to sandbox those without some cooperation from the plug-in manufacturers themselves. We have started to talk to some of the big ones about potential changes to design so that we could sandbox them in a very secure way, but at this point we haven't made any changes to the way plug-ins are sandboxed from the beta, where they're running in their own process."
Google, meanwhile, has some running of its own to do. Firefox is now used by over 20% of Internet users worldwide, according to Net Applications. Chrome's market share is 0.83% at the moment, down from the surge of interest that took it to 1% market share when it was first released. According to Rakowski, there are 10 million people using Chrome. Expect Google to seek many more.
InformationWeek has done its own breakdown of Google Chrome. Download the report here (registration required).
If you haven't seen Chrome in action yet, take a spin through our Google Chrome image gallery and have a look at the browser that's being touted as a game-changer.
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