Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Chrome and Rust: Pros and Cons of Google’s Browser

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First released in 2008, Google Chrome is the third most widely used web browser, coming after Internet Explorer and Firefox with a 7% market share. However, until the recently, the GNU/Linux version lagged behind the Windows version.

Now, with the recent release of the 5.0.375 beta, GNU/Linux users can get the first real sense of Chrome. Mostly, the experience is promising, although a few customization options are missing, and some features may cause concerns for free and open software (FOSS) and privacy advocates.

Google is a company that knows FOSS, so packages for the Chrome beta are available for 32 and 64 bit Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE. The page also includes a link to a table of packages supported by other distributions.

Should you be using one of the official Google packages, you might want to read the end-user’s license agreement. The agreement reads as though generic, and may not be the final license. Still, you may want to know that, like the license that openSUSE used on its betas until a few releases ago, it is non-free. When you download an official package, the license assumes that you have implicitly agreed not to copy or distribute it.

Moreover, the license also states that, by downloading, you grant Google the right to update without notifying you. But, despite the note on the download page that says that part of the installation is adding the Google repository to your sources, I could see no sign that it had actually done so on the Debian system I used to install. All the same, users who value their privacy might want to check when they update in case this arrangement is implemented later.

Possibly, Google had second thoughts about privacy because, the first time you start Chrome, the option to send statistics and crash reports automatically is not enabled by default. So is the option to make Chrome your default web browser.

Another option is to import settings from Firefox. It does not work if you are using Icedove, Debian’s unbranded version of Firefox, but might just surprise you (as it did me) by tracking down an old ~/.mozilla directory and taking the settings from there.

A Minimalist Interface

Chrome’s design seems to assume — probably correctly — that users are already familiar with web browsers. The design is starkly minimalist, with next to no window decorations, and the tabs and controls taking about two-thirds of the space that they do in Firefox — large because the toolbar does double duty as menus, with drop-down lists on some of the icons.

The advantage of this minimalism is that it maximizes the amount of space for displaying pages, which may be especially handy on a netbook screen. It also reduces window clutter, since most (but not all) dialogs are shown on a tab, rather than in a sub-window, and makes hunting down controls much easier than in Firefox

The potential disadvantage is that the controls, which cannot be customized, are too small for some users. If so, this disadvantage may be compounded by the small and equally minimalist icons These icons are divided by the input field in the middle, with the browsing controls such as Next and Previous on the left and configuration options for the current page and for Chrome in general on the right.

A similar minimalism is visible in the input field, which automatically grays out the http:// at the start of an URL, as well as the pages after the site’s main address. While that may seem like a small change, after ten minutes of using Chrome, you may find, as I did, that it makes addresses easier to remember because they are stripped down to the basics.

You can customize the interface by installing themes as extensions or reverting to the default at Options -> Personal Stuff -> Appearance. If you do, though, you may find the results disappointing: because of the minimalist interface, only the wildest themes are really noticeable.

A Growing Feature Set

Chrome’s best-known feature is its speed. My own rough estimate is that is that it starts about 10% faster than Firefox, and loads pages about 35% faster on average. This is enough of a difference for bragging rights, although since the times are measured in seconds, the advantage may not matter for most users.

However, this speed disappeared when I opened 23 tabs at once. In fact, Firefox was about 25% faster in completely loading all the tabs. Could Chrome’s opening of each tab as a separate thread actually be a handicap with large numbers of tabs?

In other areas, the beta shows Chrome gradually adding features. Earlier releases already had incognito browsing, which excludes sites that you visit from the browser and download histories. Now, in the beta, you can now drag tabs to the desktop to open them in separate windows, or choose Set Up Sync from the drop-down list on the control icon to share bookmarks through your Google account.

Options especially are more numerous in the beta than in previous builds. Although the default search engine is Google, naturally enough, you can choose from nine other defaults, including Google rivals such as Yahoo! and Bing. You can also choose to save passwords, and have Chrome show suggestions for navigation error or URL completion, and adjust the default font sizes. Many of these options are not unique, but they are the sorts of controls that users expect to find in a browser, and should make Chrome more competitive against Internet Explorer and Firefox

Unfortunately, some of these options need to explained in more detail. For example, what phishing and malware protection is enabled when you check this feature? Others, such as
Options -> Translate, or HTML5 support, do not seem to be implemented in the build I test.. Overall, Chrome still lacks Firefox’s rich array of customization, as well as features such as options for notifications display customization, but the gap is clearly narrowing.

The Growth of the Extensions Ecosystem

In the early reviews of Chrome, the most common complaint was a lack of extensions comparable to Firefox’s. When the first Chrome extensions started to appear a year ago, such as AdSweep, it was bloggable news.

Now, with the beta’s release, Chrome’s supporting extensions are becoming more numerous. For one thing, Adobe Flash Player is integrated into Chrome, and updated automatically.

Even more importantly, Chrome now has an extension library to rival Firefox’s. In fact, many of Chrome’s extensions are either ports or close analogs of Firefox’s. Others are themes or enhancements specific to Chrome and Google’s online services.

To give an example of the variety of extensions available, as I write, the five top-rated Chrome extensions are One Manga Reader, Facebook Photo Zoom, Feedly, Chromey Calculator, and Google Mail Checker Plus, most of whose functions should be guessable from their names.

My only complaints about Chrome’s extensions is that, unlike Firefox’s, they are not listed by license for the sake of those of us who prefer a completely FOSS system, and that the comments are not policed as well as Firefox’s, which consigns browsers to wading through the occasional infestation of spam. These points aside, Chrome has obviously caught the imagination of the extension-building community, and is much the better for doing so.

Web Browser Integration

Undoubtedly, Google Chrome is the biggest development in browsers since Netscape created the Mozilla Organization. As such, it has been the center of mostly uncritical hype. However, if you ignore the hype, what is left is a solid browser — less spectacular or original than sometimes claimed, but well-worth keeping an eye on.

All the same, doubts remain. Chrome seems to have a mixed reaction to FOSS and privacy issues, sometimes taking them into account and sometimes ignoring them. Perhaps, though, these mixed reactions are due to the fact that, so far, the most that we have seen is a beta. Chrome may be more consistent by the time it reaches final release, although how the GNU/Linux version will manage to be free software with the Adobe Flash player embedded in it is uncertain.

Another misgiving may be the extent to which Chrome integrates into Google’s online services. Obviously, you can’t expect Google to ignore its own online services, but, in FOSS circles, some may have qualms about entrusting so much of their online experience to a corporation.

No doubt these qualms will seem like paranoia to many, especially since such integrated services are so convenient. But they do mean that Chrome may bear watching as much for the policies surrounding it as for its technological innovation.

One thing is clear: As Chrome moves towards first release, it is likely to become the main influence on other browsers as well, especially Firefox. If Chrome does nothing else, it is already making web browsing a hot topic again.

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