First Look: Is Google's Chrome a glimpse of the future?

According to a news story by Computerworld's Heather Havenstein, Google's shiny new Chrome browser isn't part of an attempt to kill off Firefox or IE. It's an attempt to kill off Windows. While I initially took that statement with enough salt to alarm my doctor, after an initial tryout of Google's new browser, I ain't so sure.

Exhibit #1: Working on the Web

Chrome's ability to launch a Web-based application in a separate "streamlined" window, devoid of distractions such as address bars and bookmarks, could very well be the advance guard in a push to make all apps Web-based. In other words, try to make the user forget that they are using a browser, at least while they're typing into Google Docs or Gmail.

A very nice idea, in my opinion, if still a bit raw. Right now, the way you create what Google calls a "Web application" is to create a short-cut to that application; it will then open in the simplified browser. Unfortunately, in apps like Google Docs, all that means is that you're opening your list of documents in the streamlined Window -- once you click on the name of one of your documents, or create a new one, you're back on your regular browser.

So it needs some work. But it's a good idea.

Exhibit #2: Keep it simple, stupid

I have to admit, Google Chrome has one of the simplest -- and the least attractive -- UIs I've seen in a while. I didn't realize how much I rather liked the color that the icons in most toolbars lend my apps until faced with the Spartan blue tagged interface that Chrome opens with.

Google Chrome

All that being said, there is a lot to admire here. I'm very taken with the New Tab page, which exhibits your nine most visited pages and a list of the sites you search on most. I like the new search capability, where you start typing the name of a previously used site (say, YouTube) and hit the tab; you're immediately put in search mode. I like the way you can type a word in the address bar (what Google calls the Omnibox) and get a well-formatted list of sites that you've visited in the past (or possibly should have).

And I do have to say that Chrome installed extremely smoothly. It picked up my Firefox bookmarks and cookies with no hiccups whatsoever.

The much-discussed Incognito Bar, which doesn't save either your history or your cookies? A nice idea, certainly -- it's nice in IE8 as well, where it's called InPrivate Browsing.

I like the subtle download feature, which sits out of the way in the lower left-hand corner and works quietly, quickly, and effectively.

One of the things I'm most curious about is add-ons. In the Google Chrome Help Center, a single line states, "Currently, Google Chrome doesn't support any extensions." Since I know at least one person who won't use any browser unless he can use the Google Toolbar -- even a browser from Google -- that could be an issue.

Exhibit #3: Each tab its own universe

One of the problems that Firefox has had over its past few iterations is "memory bloat" -- over the course of a working day, as tabs are opened and closed, not all the memory is returned and Firefox starts growing, until your system starts slowing at an alarming rate. It's a phenomenon not unknown to me; and while the latest version of Firefox has made things a lot better, it can still be a problem.

Google says it's fixed this in Chrome by confining each tab to its own process. (For details, you can check out Google's comic book version of Chrome's features.) As a result, as you close each tab, you will shut down that process, together with all the memory it used. For example, when I had four tabs open, there were six separate processes listed in my Windows Task Manager (and in Google Chrome's Task Manager), including the browser itself, each of the four pages, and a Flash plug-in.

Google Chrome Task Manager

Because this is a quick first look, I haven't tested the browser over the course of a full day to see if memory is completely returned as I close each tab. The strategy sounds logical, and as a Firefox fan whose somewhat under-memoried notebook has ground to a halt more than once, I would be very happy if it turned out to be true.

Computerworld's Preston Gralla is working on a full review of Chrome, which should be available tomorrow. Is Chrome something that I'd use instead of Firefox? I haven't decided yet -- certainly, while there's an awful lot to like here, I'm strongly inclined to wait until some of my favorite add-ons are available for it (assuming they will be).

Should you try it? I would -- Chrome is a fast, simple download that won't interfere with your current browser. At the very least, it will offer a new take on the browsing experience. And possibly offer a small glimpse of the future.

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