Why Chrome won't rule the world (yet)

I like Google's new Chrome Web browser a lot -- as in, I think it's going to change the desktop world in a way we haven't seen since Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina released the first modern Web browser, Mosaic, back in 1993.

What Chrome brings to the table are behind-the-scenes features like V8, a killer multithreaded JavaScript virtual machine. V8 compiles JavaScript code directly into machine code instead of interpreting it as most JVMs do. The result is that Web-based applications written in JavaScript -- like, say, Google Gmail, Google Docs and Google Maps -- run much, much faster than they do on other browsers.

How much faster? I put Chrome, Firefox 3 , Safari3.1.2 and Internet Explorer 7 on the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark racetrack, and this is what I found: Chrome won, running away with a mark of 1,975.0 milliseconds. Firefox 3.0 came in second, with 3,125.2msec. Safari, which uses WebKit, the same open-source browser engine as Chrome, took third, with 4,006.8 msec. And IE -- oh, the shame! It came in dead last, with a mark of 32,221.4 msec.

Fast enough for you?

Chrome also runs JavaScript programs with multiple processes. The short explanation of why this is good is that each browser tab can run its own JavaScript program. That way, if a program freezes up, it doesn't stop the rest of the applications or the browser. They continue on as normal. Compare that with your usual run-of-the-mill browsers. With them, if one JavaScript program goes blooey, everything comes to an abrupt halt.

Put this and Chrome's other improvements together, and what you have isn't a browser anymore. It's an application platform. Some are saying it's a direct challenge to Windows. It's not. But it is one giant step toward making Web-based applications -- especially Google apps, naturally -- a real threat to Microsoft Office.

Combine this with other trends, and I can easily see millions of people using cheap PCs powered by desktop Linux and connecting to Google applications with Chrome as their interface. Why pay for Windows and Office when you can get all they can do for next to nothing?

Chrome, however, is not ready to take over the desktop world quite yet.

The browser still has security problems. I'm not sure there will ever be a Web browser without security troubles, but Chrome seems to have more than I would have expected. Of course, it has been in the workshop for over two years, and this is its first visit to the real world. In addition, Chrome is open source, and security bugs tend to get squashed faster in open-source projects.

Chrome also uses more memory than I expected, especially since Google says it has been trying hard to get rid of memory leaks. I'm not sure, though, that what I've seen is the whole story. Chrome was designed to be better at managing memory after it has been running for a long time with multiple applications. In other words, it was meant to perform best in real-world conditions. In any case, it's a beta program. Beta programs always use more memory than final releases.

So, is Chrome ready to topple the desktop world and replace it with one where applications live on the Web? No, not yet. But that world is coming.

I'm quite serious. It may not be Chrome itself that ushers in that world; it may be Firefox with Chrome's goodness baked in. (Hey, it';s open source; you can do things like that.) But I have no doubt that the PC-centric world we've grown to think of as normal since the 1980s is about to change to one where PC- and Web-based applications are equally important.

Where does Microsoft fit into that world? Ballmer and company are in deep, deep trouble.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

This story, "Why Chrome won't rule the world (yet)" was originally published by Computerworld.

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