Talk of Google's new browser, Chrome, is on the lips of techies everywhere. Lots of people have criticisms, but the software shows Google is sensitive to the way we use Web applications. Supporting users who live life in the cloud may be getting easier.
By now, most IT folks have heard that Google has released a new Web browser. In fact, I am going to bet that a lot of the support pros that read this blog have probably already had a request or two to install Chrome on their users' machines. Early opinions on Chrome from the TechRepublic forums are not very favorable, but I think that Google's new software provides an interesting forecast of where browsers are heading. Chrome gives us an early look at a few browser features that will be mandatory for any browser used on enterprise machines.
Hot off the presses, Google's Chrome is not aimed at business users, not yet. Some of the choices made in the user interface make that abundantly clear (cf. the "Aw, Snap!" and "Stats for Nerds" screenshots in John Sheesley's excellent First Look: Google Chrome). This is true to form for Google, though. Both Google's Apps and Mail were launched as consumer products, but eventually versions were packaged for small business use. Even if enterprise users never widely adopt Chrome, the technologies used therein will spread to other browsers. Google's decision to engineer a browser for the way the Web is used today will have repercussions for the browsers more popular in the enterprise.
Google designed Chrome to serve as a window optimized for Web applications, as a study of a couple of its main features can illustrate. First, each browser tab/window runs as its own secure process. This addresses a shortcoming that other modern browsers have, especially when browsers are used for mission-critical Web applications. For instance, our university has several of its core applications implemented with Web interfaces. Payrolls, grants management, purchasing — all of these functions require a Web browser. Managers usually have their browsers open all day. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen someone who uses these Web applications have his or her work disrupted by a browser crash. I know it has happened to all of you: something goes wrong in one tab or window and that problem torpedoes the whole application. I am tempted to offer Chrome as an option for my users just to save them from the domino effect that crashes have in other currently available browsers. This is the feature that other browser makers need to implement, now.
Second, Chrome easily lets a user create an Application Shortcut from any Web page. This creates a desktop icon that can be used to load a specific Web site in a stripped-down window without the standard complement of browser buttons and bars. This is called site-specific browsing, and I think it makes enterprise Web apps easier to support. In my experience, I have seen a lot of people tripped up by Web applications when they run them in normal browsers. Users will click the browser's Back button rather than using the correct link in the Web app interface, and so on. A site-specific browser like Chrome's Application Shortcut does not bother with all the interface widgets that regular Web browsing requires. This takes Web apps and makes them seem more like regular client-side applications. Training users on Web apps and supporting their use becomes easier with site-specific browsing, since it puts the Web app at the forefront and keeps the browser from getting in the way.
Those two advancements are the game-changing browser features that Google is bringing before the general public with Chrome. We should not be surprised that a company with such visible Web services would invest in a browser that is better suited for those applications. Whatever Google's motivation, though, Web applications and browser-based computing are here to stay. They may not be right for every situation or even every enterprise, but users will only be seeing more of such solutions. Web applications represent a paradigm shift, and I think that an evolution in browser technology that acknowledges this fact is long overdue. Google's Chrome gives IT pros a first look at some features that will make supporting Web apps easier and that will come to be demanded by people who use Web apps. Google has started a browser revolution. I am interested to see how quickly other developers will respond.