The Null Device

Google Chrome, or the web browser as an OS

Google are apparently working on a new web browser. Named Chrome, the browser is designed more like an operating system which happens to be based on web technologies like DOM and JavaScript than a traditional browser; different pages are separate processes (and about time, too) and privileges are compartmentalised to fortify security. Meanwhile, the web rendering implementation is based on WebKit (the Apple/KDE open-source web engine), with a JIT-compiling JavaScript engine optimised for application from a Danish company named V8 (I wonder how it compares to Apple's Squirrelfish and Mozilla's new engine). Alas, there's no code available (and the URL given returns a 404); instead, Google have given us a beautifully drawn 38-page comic by Scott McCloud, illuminating the technical innovations and the reasons for them, in great detail and with no small amount of humour:

That's all the detail that seems to exist so far. There is a possibility that it's just an elaborate feint; Google could, in theory, have paid McCloud some huge sum to draw a comic to specification, peppered with technical versimilitude, purely in order to send Microsoft/Apple/Yahoo!/whoever's development teams on a wild goose chase. Though I suspect that there is an actual product there. For one, Google are known to use WebKit on Android. More importantly, though, a browser designed as a web application operating system (with the expectations of performance and stability that implies), rather than an information viewer with programmability grafted on as an afterthought (as is the case with current browsers), would line up rather nicely with Google's strategy to make the web into a first-class application platform.

There are no details on what platforms Chrome will run; it is open-source (and other projects, or those willing to fork those, will probably have a field day with this), and the comic does mention Windows in one place, so presumably a Windows version is planned. I'm guessing that Google aren't doing this to help Microsoft sell Windows licences, though, so presumably this is not the only version planned. A Linux desktop version, running on top of X, is probably likely. Another possibility is it running over something lighter than the average Linux desktop, making a robust web-browsing appliance on which the browser meets the conventional definitions of an operating system; either Android or some other lightweight OS.

The other option, of course, is that this is an elaborate hoax, akin to the Photoshopped "spy photos" of new Apple Mac tablets and other fantastic gear that are a regular feature of gadget blogs. The fact that Google's Chrome page doesn't yet exist (at time of writing) does suggest this possibility. Though this would imply that the hoaxers had an enormous amount of time on their hands, excellent comic drawing skills and an uncanny mastery of the drawing style of Scott McCloud.

Update: Google have confirmed Chrome. It's initially a Windows product (presumably to win market share before IE8 comes along and shuts off Google's oxygen with its advertising cookie blocker), though Mac and Linux versions are in the works. The Windows version will apparently be out tomorrow.

There are 3 comments on "Google Chrome, or the web browser as an OS":

Posted by: gjw Tue Sep 2 12:11:05 2008

It does sound interesting, and I have to admit I'll be compulsively reloading Google's currently empty Chrome page until it appears, but the main feature I want in a browser now is good extension support. Firefox does this brilliantly; I couldn't survive without integration, Adblock Plus, DownloadHelper, Greasemonkey etc. and all this stuff will have to be done from scratch for Chrome, if it's supported at all. The comic also mentions how great it would be to have a browser that doesn't crash all the time; I can honestly say I haven't had any browser crash on me, on any platform, in about 2 years.

Posted by: acb Tue Sep 2 12:38:47 2008

Every Firefox I've used has tended to consume more and more memory and become slower and slower until at some point it crashed. Recent ones did so more slowly, but still did so. This is due to the architecture of a web browser (which has ceased to be a simple "browser" a long time ago, but is still designed as if it were). The move to Chrome will be somewhat like the move between MacOS 9 and OSX, from a toy system that grew beyond what it was meant for to something more robust.

Posted by: ctime Tue Sep 2 19:31:13 2008

It's working very well, more stable and usable than I expected (and light-weight). Check out the about:memory feature, note it will allow you to compare memory access of the other browsers open too. I've added the Null Device to my bookmark bar..for quick access!