I think it’s fairly safe to assume that if you’re reading this, you already know what Chrome is, and unless you’re a Mac- or Linux-only user, you’ve probably already got a copy installed on your current machine. If so, consider yourself an early-adopter and likely not the target audience for Google’s latest advance into wresting the digital world away from Microsoft.

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What Exactly Is a Modern Browser?

When Blake Ross set out to create Firefox, he did so with the explicit intent of making a browser that his mother could use. At the time he was going up against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 6 (IE6) and the internet was still largely pulled into our homes through tiny little dialup connections, and was thus largely pushing through static content. Mind you, the web had progressed beyond frames and (to a large extent, tables) but that internet was vastly different than the internet that has developed under the lumped, umbrella title of Web 2.0.

The modern web is a fast, fluid entity. It’s interconnected. It relies on a handful of technologies that were advancing sometimes faster than the browsers that were meant to display them. And one of those technologies, JavaScript had grown from a simple client-side scripting language to the linchpin behind many of the web’s more desktop-application-like websites typically blended with other technologies (AJAX anyone?). Yes, it seemed that the internet was attempting to blow through the knee in an exponential growth period and the two primary browsers (Internet Explorer and Firefox) were attempting to keep up through incremental updates.

These incremental updates, landed us with our two modern choices – Internet Explorer Beta 2 , and Firefox 3, both of which made large strides over their previous iterations, but still paid a great deal of respect to the browsers that that they sprung from. Google took a path very similar to Steve Jobs’ decision regarding the change from OSIX to OSX – they scrapped everything and started from the beginning to build a browser custom tailored to meet the needs of the modern internet.

A Look at Chrome – the Browser that Thinks it’s an OS

With Chrome, which was roughly two years in the making, Google was doing the same thing in the browser that the major operating systems were doing on your PC – striving to balance efficiency, security, and a beautifully intuitive GUI. And Google has decided to use some of the same tricks that Vista, OSX, and many Linux distros use to achieve the same results.

For efficiency, Chrome maintains each of its tabs as a separate instance. This means that if one tab crashes (as tabs are wont to do) the rest of the browser does not go with it. This also means that you can fully recover ram without fragments from former tabs and websites clogging up your system.

For security, each instance is sandboxed. This means that tabs can’t accidentally leak information to each other, helping to insulate the user from spyware. Google also reduced the privileges that the individual tabs have, stopping the browser from being hijacked. To quote the folks at Google, each tab has effectively been placed in jail.

And for the third goal, Google stripped back the interface that we’ve grown to associate with a web browser. According to the press conference, and the accompanying Wired article, the kids at Google got rid of every aspect, and started fresh, keeping only what was simple, clean, and hopefully intuitive. What’s left is a browser with a scant few navigation buttons and an integrated Address/Search/Bookmark bar that Google is calling the “Omnibar”.

Google also did a little more to bolster Chromes identity issues. As noted in the efficiency section, each tab runs as an independent process. These processes can also be accessed through an internal Task Manager like one would expect to find on an operating system (accessible by hitting Shift and Escape simultaneously). Much like Windows Task Manager, the Chrome Task Manager stays on top of your other windows. And as a little side note, Task Manager also displays the system resources of your other currently operating browsers in a link so warmly titled “Stuff for Nerds.”

Pushing things one step further, Google is using Chrome to invade the desktop. It seems that while Adobe is using Air to enable developers to largely code OS-independent web applications, Google is using Chrome to turn web apps directly into desktop-esque applications. If the term seems a little blurry, and misleading, so is what Chrome does. Through a simple click on a flyout menu, Chrome Users have the option to “Create Application Shortcuts…” This option, for all intents and purposes, snags a favicon and scales (sometimes rather ungracefully) that to a desktop icon. That icon opens up a further stripped down instance of Chrome that only contains the web page (no navigation buttons, no tabs, no Omnibar).

And last, but not least, Google’s Chrome is fast. When handling raw information, specifically pure JavaScript, it screams thanks in no small part to the custom built V8 JavaScript virtual machine. The other speed factor is WebKit, the Open Source rendering engine also used by Safari, that can be three times as fast Firefox’s Gecko rendering engine. The combination, when run on benchmark tests, can provide results touted as being a factor of ten faster than other browsers, and “56 times” faster than Internet Explorer 7 and other tests.

All This Would Be Great If…

For Google’s part, they have put together what seems to be a rather solid beta. However, they seem to have released the browser two years too late. Many of the unique features in Chrome have already been established in the latest browser war salvo.

The Omnibar, which as mentioned earlier, bears a great deal of similarity to Firefox 3’s Awesomebar and IE8’s Smart Address Bar. Like both, the bar keeps track of the user’s history, offering up matches in real time. And like the Smart Address Bar, the Omnibar even subdues the majority of the URL, keeping only the fully qualified domain in black. The Omnibar’s touted integrated search functionality, which is not limited to mere Google searches, seems to be a slightly more intuitive version of the Keyword Search functionality that has been standard in Firefox since at least sometime in the Firefox 2 builds, and is streamlined in the Firefox spin-off browser, Flock.

Chrome’s Incognito allows the user to surf in relative privacy. This feature bears a great deal of similarity to IE8’s InPrivate and Safari’s Private Browsing. None of the above allow for true privacy, in that web surfing can still be traced back to the user by way of IP address or other such similar identifiable features which are best muted through a proxy-server. No, these privacy features simply mean that adult-related and similar sites won’t show up in your Omnibar / Awesome Bar / Smart Address bar. These built in privacy features aren’t so much about privacy as they are about protecting you from accidentally exposing something you might otherwise be ashamed of should your significant other happen to open a new tab.

Even Chrome’s homepage technology, which creates large and visual bookmarks, links to recently closed tabs, and your most commonly used search engines, bears a very distinct similarity to Opera’s Speed Dial.

It’s Not the End of the World

Chrome does a lot of things well. Though it hasn’t gone head-to-head against Firefox 3.1 yet, Chrome’s V8 Javascript Virtual Machine seems like it will give Firefox’s Tracemonkey at least some serious competition. The sandboxing of tabs, which shares a lot of similarities with how IE8 handles them, is a strong step in the right direction and should be adopted by Firefox as early as possible. And perhaps the most important part, Google is shaking up the current browser playing field, helping to prevent stagnation, and showing that a browser can act like an operating system without reaching the bloated beast that Netscape Navigator reached in its final days. And, in accordance with the famous Google Philosophy of “Don’t Be Evil,” all of Chrome is Open Source, which means that as it cherry picked ideas and implementations; others can continue the trend, building on the work of the search giant and perhaps creating the world’s most perfect web browser.

The browser should be a means, not an end. For me, Firefox is damn near irreplaceable due in no small part to its ability to be customized. I have my browser setup exactly how I want it, with plugins that aide to my effectiveness. Until Chrome can conform to my exact workflow, letting me surf, learn, explore, and create in my own natural manner, it will not become my primary browser. So, for the time being, Chrome will be relegated to my second fiddle, sharing the side of my desktop’s stage with the likes of of Flock, IE6, IE8, and Opera.

Like I said, Chrome isn’t for the early adopters. Nor is it for the users who have customized their browser to the point where changing that would mean a sacrifice. But Chrome is a ideal for a large segment of the internet population. It’s great for those who wish to move further into cloud computing, but still wish to tie themselves to one machine (a lack of online profiles means maintaining the same Chrome on numerous machines nearly as installing all of the applications your workflow is tailored to). And Chrome is specifically tailored for the those on older machines, older users, and those who mentally equate Internet Explorer with the Internet.

I give you this fact: 25% or so of the traffic still online is using Internet Explorer 6 or older. These are the users that Chrome should be going after.

All in all, while Chrome might not be the greatest browser ever, but it does represent a lot of good things and shows extremely positive examples of what the future holds. Like in the console wars, the true test of Chrome will not be this generation, but how will Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 4, and the next iteration of Chrome impact our surfing habits.