Blog Post

Google Chrome-Induced Déjà Vu

With all the hype and excitement surrounding the release of Google Chrome yesterday, I, like so many, was eager to try the browser out for myself. What I didn’t expect was the overwhelming sense of déjà vu it would trigger in me.

I am a veteran in this industry, one whose first PC was a portable Hyperion I used when managing the sales of some graphics plotters back in the mid-80s. I went on to manage AST Computers’ Canadian operation, and from there went to Quarterdeck Corp., whose primary product was a DOS multitasking environment called DESQview, which was supported by QEMM, the most popular PC utility from about 1990 until the Windows 95 launch in August 1995. QEMM was a memory manager for PCs limited to 640K of primary DOS memory that effectively allowed them to create multiple 640K virtual machines. Simply put, DESQview allowed you to run Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, cc:Mail and Harvard Graphics concurrently, taking advantage of the virtual memory architecture of the 386 and subsequent processors. Both AST memory boards, as well as their later line of computers, took advantage of DESQview and QEMM.

Reading the Google Chrome comic strip made clear the parallel to the emergence of QEMM and DESQview: All today’s browsers are effectively single tasking, in that only one tab can be actively processing, say, a JavaScript application at any given time (“inherently single threaded”), yet the tabs are interactive to the point where the misbehavior of an “application” in one tab can impact — and sometimes crash — the operation of the entire browser. Web 2.0 has brought about an array of browser-based applications and activities that require a more robust, stable, multiprocessing browser with each process assigned to its own memory space and associated data structures — which is basically how DESQview operated. Indeed, when I pointed this out during yesterday’s SquawkBox, someone labeled Google Chrome as “DESQview for the cloud.” Talk about “Back to the Future“!

But then Chrome goes beyond simply providing a true multiprocessing capability for web browsers. It eliminates memory creep/leak issues that I experience with Firefox; it has a “Task Manager” feature that allows you to view all running tasks and shut down any misbehaving tab without having to shut down the entire browser. Its JavaScript virtual machine architecture supposedly introduces speed, robustness and automatic memory management features. Its “Omnibox” feature combines the address bar, desktop/web search bar and browsing history to enhance, yet simplify, both the browsing and search experience. It addresses a range of security issues such as malware and phishing. But the real gem is that the entire development is based on freely accessible and reusable open-source code.

I installed Chrome and ran it on a quad-core desktop PC. Not only is it fast, but introduces an altogether different browsing experience than any I’ve ever had. For example today I had three windows open and when one crashed, sent a report to Microsoft and closed, the other two windows remained open and fully operative. The real test, of course, will come from using it over time, to see if it provides a smoother, more technologically transparent user experience as you add tabs and leave it running for a while.

In summary:

  1. Chrome was developed from scratch as Web 2.0 has evolved to include a wide range of browser-based applications, thereby bringing new architectural and user interface demands to the browser experience.
  2. But, as Alec Saunders points out, while it allows you to run web-based applications, it’s not an operating system that abstracts the hardware from the software. Leave that part to Microsoft, Apple, RIM, Nokia/Symbian and other platform vendors. Google wants the browser to act as an application platform, independent of operating system.
  3. It brings out features that Google encourages other browser developers to incorporate into their respective browsers for a more stable, robust and secure browsing experience.
  4. It’s beta, so there will be some bugs; and much like the Skype 4.0 beta, they’re looking for user feedback on the entire experience. The big question, as with some other Google applications, is whether it will ever come out of beta or will the key features first migrate to other browsers?
  5. It’s not a threat to Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple or any other browser developer but rather a challenge to them to improve their own browsers such that all Google applications as well as any other browser-based applications can run smoothly and fully transparently to the underlying technology.
  6. It has the potential to be an extension of the mobile Google applications I run on my Blackberry and Nokia N-Series phones, yet it can address more generically the issues of running any browser-based application on smartphones and other mobile devices.
  7. As it matures, it has the potential to become a seed for developer innovation.

In addition to opportunities for application innovation, of course, fully transparent, smooth user experiences lead to significantly enhanced opportunities for Google ads. Nobody has ever made any significant revenue from a browser itself. Again I am reminded of my Quarterdeck days. We had a browser back in 1995 (including a feature equivalent to “Tabs”), but did not recognize it as simply a critical infrastructure component whose content and applications, not the underlying technology, would be the key to revenue generation. Been there; seen that.

Jim Courtney is an associate editor of Skype Journal.

16 Responses to “Google Chrome-Induced Déjà Vu”

  1. i’ve also seen an article referring to chrome as cloud computing. it’s a application to deliver google’s apps, gmail, analytics and all the other services. i use chrome for those above services. but i’m using firefox to post this response.

  2. Sarah Andersen

    i used to use quarterdeck (and netmanage) browsers; mozilla and others…from day 1 of the consumer browser era (1993).

    when i heard about chrome i figured i’d try it.

    chrome to me was weak and flimsy and nowhere near as good as firefox on any level

    so i uninstalled chrome, don’t NEED it

    and then today i heard about more bugs with chrome and thought of all the media hype about how innovative chrome is

    the media needs to stop eating those funny brownies they serve at the googleplex

    everything google does isn’t ‘great’

    search is about the only thing half decent it does

  3. There are some cool features like incognito mode and dynamic tabs etc, they missed out a main feature that is very much essential for the current day browser: It does not handle the RSS feeds properly.

    I save a ton of time with RSS feeds from Firefox.

  4. “DESQview for the cloud” I love it!

    Thanks Jim for bringing back the memories of the days we were doing battle against Microsoft and their “multi-tasker” Windows 3.1.

    The fundamental game changing approach that Chrome is taking on is invigorating. Plus, I think Google is in a slightly better position to challenge the Microsoft OS stranglehold than we were at Quarterdeck.

  5. Sounds like a threat to me. Never mind small businesses, big business would like a viable alternative to the stranglehold Microsoft has on their desktop estate. 90%+ of their employee productivity could be delivered via a browser, and a cross-OS browser makes an expensive OS redundant.

    However there are two major issues to overcome until corps. will look to replace windows with a.n.other OS and a browser for general office apps. One is stability – you can have your browser spreadsheet close because your browser word processor throws a wobbly. It comes down to the lingering perception that office suites are for doing work and browsers are for messing around with facebook.

    The second is consumer ease-of-use. The ubiquity of MS Word and other office apps makes employees familiar, at ease and more quickly productive. Having employees come to your company and find you use a different set of cloud office apps will disorientate them.

    Perhaps Chrome is a way to standardise the experience, make it easier to use and more consistent, especially around the integration of their own office apps suite.

  6. Great article. I wonder what’s the stance of Mozilla. Also why the great guys such as Blake Ross departed early after Firefox 1.0 went out. All I know is there were some disagreements on the way Firefox development should go.

  7. hmm…remember sun’s corona project in the 90’s? ALL of this stuff reminds of it – but without the card that you carry around to remember your ‘state’ – instead it’s in the cloud via login/identity…thoughts?

  8. Interesting article Jim,

    I also remember DESQview, however my sense of déjà vu comes more from a sense of the age old battles being fought between hosted, client/server and desktop computing models, over and over again.

    I disagree that Chrome is not a threat to Microsoft. My sense is that Microsoft makes the majority of its profit from the desktop (specifically Windows & Office) and Google makes the majority of its profit from inside the chrome of a browser. It seems to me that the success of cloud computing is in part based on the ability of the browser to run applications that rival those of the desktop, thus eroding Microsoft’s profitable desktop applications business.

    I just checked at my local Staples outlet and Microsoft Office Small Business 2007, Full, English is $596.85 CND. Given the struggles Microsoft has had in trying to move into online search and services, I believe the threat is very real.