Google Chrome: A developer's perspective

Google's new Chrome browser sets a new standard for the Web as an application platform

I was as blindsided by Google Chrome as everyone else, but there's no denying that its release was a momentous occasion. Chrome is more than just a browser; it represents Google's latest entry in the ongoing discussion of standards and best practices for the Web as an application platform. As such, it may be the company's most important offering since Gears.

"From my perspective, Google Chrome and Gears are entering the Web from two directions," says Google's Adam Goodman in Scott McCloud's comic-strip introduction to Chrome. "The [Chrome] browser project is an effort to make the Web better for users. The Gears team wants to make the Web better for developers."

[ Check out InfoWorld's Special Report for all the news, reviews, and commentary on Google's open source Chrome browser. ]

Lucky for us, Google Chrome ships with all of the functionality of the Gears plug-in for Firefox and Internet Explorer already baked in. But I don't agree that users are the only beneficiaries of the other effort that's gone into Chrome. There's a lot going on beneath the hood of the new browser that should interest developers, too.

Roaring engines
For starters, Google's decision to use the WebKit HTML rendering engine may not be surprising, but it's still significant. WebKit, an improved version of the open source KHTML project, is the rendering engine used by Apple for its Safari browser. It's also the engine found in both Apple's iPhone and Google Android, arguably the two most important mobile Web platforms today.

That means Google Chrome isn't yet another browser to support, as my pal Paul Venezia suggests. Rather, it's one more vote in favor of making WebKit a primary target for new Web development projects. It only makes sense to test against the engine that's available on the widest range of platforms and devices.

And popularity isn't the only reason why WebKit was a good choice. Current WebKit builds are very fast. As a result, pages generally pop up more quickly in Chrome than in Firefox 3. More importantly, WebKit leads the pack in Web standards compliance (with Opera a close second). The more developers get on board with writing fully standards-compliant code, free of undocumented tricks and browser-specific hacks, the better it will be for everyone.

Chrome raises the bar in other ways, as well. Its V8 code execution engine beats Firefox's forthcoming TraceMonkey to the punch by offering a just-in-time native compilation engine for JavaScript. That means it runs Web applications at blazing speeds. But V8 is also a proper virtual machine environment; it's designed to handle multiple execution threads and memory management better than any other JavaScript implementation to date. For developers, these efforts further cement JavaScript's position as a legitimate application development platform, rather than a toy language for one-off scripting.

From specs to prototype
I wholeheartedly recommend reading the introductory comic strip for more insight into how Google rebuilt the browser from the ground up. Everything, from the browser security model to how plug-ins are managed, has been crafted with the utmost care. Google Chrome really is the next step in the ongoing project to create the ultimate client for the Web application platform.

To understand what I mean by that, think of the drafting of Web standards as the requirements-gathering phase of Web browser development. The various specifications describe the type of documents that the browser will be expected to parse and how it should deal with them when it receives them. With Chrome, Google has taken the next step. It has offered us its own vision of what a reference implementation of the browser should look like -- not just how it should render pages, but how each module of the application should operate and interoperate.

Mind you, we don't have to just take Google's word for it. For example, I still think this fixation on JavaScript might be a little bit unhealthy. But that's fine. Because Chrome is open source, we're free to take the ideas -- and even the code -- that we want, and leave the rest. Or we can add the parts that are missing: an ad blocker, for example.

Google doesn't need Chrome to be a "Firefox-killer," or to become the dominant browser on the market. The important thing is that Chrome will keep us talking -- and in so doing, as Google is so fond of saying, it will help to push the Web forward. It's high time that we developed new standards and practices for today's Web. In that discussion, Google now clearly sits at the head of the table.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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