Dispatches from the Browser Wars

As the next step in their march to world domination, Google jumped into the browser wars recently with the release of Chrome. I downloaded Chrome to try it out – frequent readers may recall that I’m an IE loyalist, primarily due to its status as the de facto standard for browsers, but Google has been able to dethrone the kings of other software realms, so I was interested to see what their considerable coding muscle could provide in the browser space.

During chromethe installation process, I was intrigued by the not-quite-ubiquitous usage stats checkbox. Tip of the hat to Google for leaving it unchecked as a default, but a big ol’ wag of my finger at them for the one critical word missing in this sentence:

Optional: Help make Google Chrome better by automatically sending usage statistics and crash reports to Google.

Can you spot the missing word? Anonymous. Traditionally, these sorts of error reports and usage stats are sent without any sort of identifying information, as a way for programmers to see how their creation behaves in the wild. Google, on the other hand, has made their browser into (potentially) another arm of their total information awareness machine. And while I trust that they don’t intend to use this data for evil (not only is it in their corporate motto, but to do so would ensure Google’s destruction – we only give them access to all of our data with the understand that they won’t abuse it. Betraying that trust would mean the end for Google), I’m still a little wary of helping them fill in the gaps that Analytics, AdWords, Gmail and search don’t cover about me [Update 9.16.08: the German Government is apparently telling citizens not to use Chrome, for privacy reasons. h/t Valleywag].

Read about my impressions of the browser post-install below the fold…

After the actual installation, which was surprisingly painless, though they did follow the trend of too many software providers by eagerly offering to put shortcuts on the desktop, quick launch bar, start menu, and anywhere else it would reasonably fit, I launched the browser. I was struck by the simplicity of the user interface – they’ve maximized the actual browsing space, at the cost of various tool and menu bars that many of us had become accustomed to.

I’m not sure if I’m in favor of this or not – I was one of many who, upon installing IE7, went immediately in search of how to bring back the file menu, but on the other hand, I’m perfectly comfortable with screenshotOffice 2007′s ribbon. The options available to users are Spartan, and there’s no way to bring back some of the bars that we’ve become accustomed to. On the one hand, I can see the appeal here – it’s supposed to be a different kind of browser and not just another Netscape clone. On the other hand, those bars were there for a reason – I liked the dashboard view I had on the status bar at the page bottom, and having a little room for tabs to breathe at the top of the page. Maybe it’ll just take a little getting used to.

Chrome opens a page on startup to tout it’s new features – the primary three of which are “One box for everything” “New Tab Page” and “Application shortcuts.” I’m afraid their choices here left me less than awed – due to the success of Google’s own toolbar, I already have one box for everything (since it defaults to searching if you don’t enter in a web address, and pulls up the first result if it has a high enough pagerank) – I’ve actually set my right-hand search box to pull from Wikipedia, since that’s my second most frequent search.

The new tab page is cool, I won’t lie, but I’m not sure about the choice to pull from most visited sites – if their the sites I visit most, I’ve probably already got a way to quickly pull them. I generally use bookmarks instead for sites I don’t visit frequently and are hard to find, so I set up a link back with del.icio.us, Google Bookmarks, or IE’s own bookmarks.

The application shortcuts feature is one that I’m afraid I don’t really see the need for – Windows already lets you do this fairly easily, and even if it didn’t IE has a Send to… > Shortcut on Desktop commend for it. It’s strange that two out of the three features they trumpet so highly would be things that you can already do, particularly when they have more exciting features, like Dynamic Tabs, Simpler Downloads, and Crash Control (which I’ll have to see to believe). Some of these replicate features already available through plugins to other browsers, but they’re cool to see integrated.

Chrome is fast, gmailbut that’s the case of any newborn browser before users add on the plugins to make it useful. And I’ve never seen browser speed as that important a selling point – I’d rather have a load of useful features to be functional instead.

Chrome  is still a beta, so it may seem unfair to be holding it up to completed browsers like IE and Firefox, both of which had fairly buggy beta periods, but then, Gmail is still a beta, and it’s 4.5 years old as of this writing. As Google adds new features to Chrome, I’ll be happy to update my opinion, but for now, I think I’ll stick with my trusty Internet Explorer.

What are your impressions of Chrome? Leave your thoughts in the comments…

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