Straight out of Compton
Google Chrome as a paragon of ambition, if not necessarily execution.
This afternoon I was all a-twitter about Chrome, Google’s new web browser. Google’s deft illustration of the technology and motivation behind Chrome left me primed for something interesting, and the actual product did not disappoint.
My enthusiasm at this point is not so much about the product as it is about the methodology. Google didn’t set out to merely improve upon existing web browsers. Instead, it attempted to rebuild the web browser from first principles.
The last two successful web browsers have both taken minimalist approaches to their user interfaces, subtracting features from their popular predecessors before adding new ones of their own. Firefox was a back-to-basics browser, rising from the ashes of the huge and increasingly complicated Mozilla browser. Safari presented an even more svelte user interface. Both browsers have fought hard to remain slim as they’ve marched up from version 1.0 to 3.0, while still offering improvements with each revision.
On the back-end, these projects have been huge successes. The Gecko and WebKit layout engines have advanced standards support and performance by leaps and bounds. WebKit has been so successful that Google is using it in Chrome.
But when it comes to user interface, Firefox and Safari have both struggled to balance the desire for new features with the simplicity that contributed to their early success. As the version numbers increase, this kind of pressure is inevitable. What’s the best defense against this sort of thing?
Google Chrome makes the argument that Safari and Firefox did not go far enough in their subtractive design approach. Consider, for example, Safari’s lack of separators in the bookmarks menu, presented by some as a brave simplification. I say brave because this feature has existed in nearly every popular web browser since the birth of the web, making its absence a source of frustration to many—including me. (Radar 3119012, filed in 2003.)
Google’s approach with Chrome is different. Rather than removing features from existing web browsers, Google has taken its brightly colored forearm and swept the table absolutely clean. Forget about menu separators; why even have a bookmarks menu? Hell, why have a menu bar at all? Start with nothing. Assume nothing. Add features only as needed, and only in service of a well-defined design concept (more on that below).
That’s what’s most exciting about Chrome: not the individual features Google has added, not the most prominent aspects of its user interface, such as the top-mounted tabs. All of that stuff will be tried and tested in the market. But the approach, the philosophy, the sheer chutzpah on display…that is a thing of beauty.
And that’s why, earlier today, I called Chrome “a wake-up call for the Safari UI guys.” It’s not that any particular feature of Chrome is so wonderful, or even that the sum of those features puts Safari back on its heels in the browser wars. It’s the idea that someone other than Apple has taken such clear leadership in this area. Google Chrome makes Safari’s user interface look conservative; it makes Apple look timid. And when it comes to innovation, overall daring counts for a lot more than individual successes or failures on the long-term graph.
All of this is made even more worrisome by Google’s motivation for the design of Chrome’s interface, baldly stated in Google’s User Experience documentation (and indeed, in the product name itself).
In the long term, we think of [Chrome] as a tabbed window manager or shell for the web rather than a browser application. We avoid putting things into our UI in the same way you would hope that Apple and Microsoft would avoid putting things into the standard window frames of applications on their operating systems.
And there it is, Microsoft’s worst nightmare laid bare. Google has grown tired of the web browser ghetto, all its applications crowded together into a single, often unreliable container. “Real” applications don’t have to put up with this. They live and die on their own terms. Their chrome is elegant, sleek. They are not mere content presented within another application. They are prime actors, first-class citizens.
That’s what Google wants for its products, and it’s decided that the only way to get it—the only way to escape the ghetto of the browser—is to make a web browser of its own. That must have been a difficult decision to make, and the road ahead is tough. But no matter how it turns out, you have to admire the bravery. Go on, Google, tell ’em where you’re from.
This article originally appeared at Ars Technica. It is reproduced here with permission.