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Opinion: Google's Chrome not yet for mainstream computing

Posted: 05 Sep 2008 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Google Chrome browser? mobile browser? computing world?

My short trip to Google headquarters for the launch of its new Chrome browser left me charged up about how this company has become a magnet for fresh thinking in computer science. My even shorter test drive of the Chrome beta made it equally clear this application is not ready for mainstream computing.

The Chrome browser, targeted for mobile devices, does indeed load pages quickly, albeit in a somewhat crazy jerky fashion. But attempts to load video from my own site and CNN.com failed due to lack of an Adobe flash plug-in. What's worse, browser tabs repeatedly froze trying to download the plug-in, a simple task the app was not able to complete despite several tries.

Indeed, the lack of any plug-in architecture in the initial beta of Chrome is one of its most glaring omissions. Developers said they are working on it.

As an initial look at Chrome shows, the browser reflects Google's Zen-like simplicity, eliminating the forest of pull down menus proliferated in the Microsoft universe.

Unfortunately, I am a child of that universe, weaned on Microsoft apps since before Windows 3.1 took off. Using Chrome, I groped anxiously unable to find my bookmarks and other often-used features.

I don't pretend to be a professional reviewer, and those who are will write a more complete tail of the strengths and weaknesses of this application in coming weeks. But I know enough to be able to tell that this code has a loooong way to go before it is a viable alternative to Firefox and Safari, let alone Internet Explorer.

Youthful vibe
Even co-founder Sergey Brin seemed to be telegraphing his awareness of this fact at the Sept. 2 press conference.

"This is just an initial beta," Brin cautioned the press. "But there is a lot of deep thinking about computer science here, and we and the open source community can develop it further."

Indeed, what Chrome lacks in its initial execution, Google makes up for in its ambition and youthful energy. A walk across the Mountain View campus after the launch made that clear.

I bumped into Vint Cerf, developer of the Internet Protocol, striding past the cafe in his signature three-piece suit despite the near 90 heat. Then I saw the CEO of startup Crossbow, a leader in the drive to sensor network. And everywhere young, bright people were engaged in animated conversations amid tours of visitors cranked up about whatever projects brought them here. The Microsoft campus in Redmond felt like this, a decade ago.

The Chrome team reflects that youthful energy. One member in particular strands out for meLars Bak, the technical lead of V8, the Javascript virtual machine inside Chrome. Bak was also the technical lead for Sun Microsystems Hotspot, the VM inside the mainstream version of Java Sun ships today, as well as a prime author of a Sun VM for cellphones.

When Google was kicking off the Chrome project two years ago, Lars got a call at his Denmark university office asking if he would join. In between projects, he jumped at the chance to be part of the ambitious effort.

I suspect the V8 engine designed by Bak and the new Google team he assembled near Denmark will have plenty of legs. Its speed could be very useful beyond Chrome to drive interactive features in Blu-ray disks or future Tru2Way cable services.

V8 compiles Javascript code directly to the machine language of the CPU. To date, it has been ported to single-threaded, 32bit x86 processors and an ARM7.

It supports so-called hidden class transactions to better group and manage objects. And it has improved garbage collection that can make a round trip of the memory heap in "a few milliseconds."

"I have been working on virtual machines for 20 years and I have never been this excited," said Bak, speaking of his current work.

Open-source community
There are many other interesting elements of Chrome, fairly well- documented at a high level in an online comic book tutorial.

In the end, I suspect V8 will be the most technically and commercially successful element of Chrome, at least initially. Whether Chrome itself takes off will, as Brin suggested, depends to some extent on the efforts of Googlers and the open source community to give it some of the polish it needs in areas such as plug-ins.

One of Google's main strategic interests with Chrome is to fire up that community, said co-founder Larry Page at the Chrome launch.

The search giant cannot afford to let Microsoft with its 70-percent-plus share of the browser market dictate what you can and can't do well in the confines of a browser.

The good news for Google is it has so many resources now it can throw teams of top notch designers at issues such as building a browser that does a better job of executing the Javascript code its rising slate of applications depend on. Indeed, it can throw two teams at the problem.

Google's Android team began its work on cellphone softwareincluding its own mobile-optimized browserabout the same time as the Chrome team. Brin said he let the two operate independently so as not to slow down either effort. What other company could muster the wherewithal to simultaneously develop a new browser and a new cellphone software stackand not expect to have to recoup major revenues from either effort!

Whether either effort results in viable commercial mainstream products remains to be seen. In my opinion, Chrome needs at least one or two major turns of the crank, and we won't know anything substantive about Android until the first phones hit later this year.

What's clear is that Google has gained critical mass as one of the epicenters of commercial thinking about computer science.

In the lobby of the quirky glass and brass office building where Google launched Chrome hangs a life-sized replica of Spaceship One, the X Prize winning commercial vehicle that took a man to the verge of space and back on a bumpy ride. It is an apt symbol for this company and some of its products such as Chrome that show an ability to think bigand the need for a lot of polish.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times





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