Exactly 10 years ago Tuesday, a newly promoted vice president named Sundar Pichai stood before a group of tech reporters in a conference room at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. There, he revealed the Chrome web browser publicly for the first time.
It went well, to say the least.
Over the last decade, the comparatively sleek browser eclipsed rivals and now accounts for 60 percent of browser usage, according to analytics firm StatCounter. There are 2 billion copies of Chrome installed, with 1 billion people using it each month. And Pichai, buoyed by a product he’s called “exceptionally profitable,” is now Google’s chief executive.
“The initial beta launch showed we struck a chord,” said Darin Fisher, the Chrome engineering leader who helped write the first secret prototype in 2006. “We were hoping to show Chrome wasn’t just a me-too browser,” he said in an exclusive interview for the browser’s 10th anniversary.
Along the way, Chrome led an industry effort to modernize the web — an effort that also let Google advance its own services like YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and the G Suite productivity tools. Now, though, Chrome faces a new question: what to do with all that power.
The web is famously open, a neutral computing foundation controlled by no one single entity. But as Chrome gets more powerful, the open web could gradually become the Google web.
“Having a war of ideas and technology and engines is healthy for the web,” said Brad Frost, a web developer, author and consultant. Instead, he said, “you’re starting to see a lot of sites — including, scarily, Google-owned sites — that only work in Chrome, which absolutely goes against the fabric of the web.”
We’ve seen this problem before, when nearly 20 years ago Microsoft’s Internet Explorer squeezed out Netscape Navigator and other would-be rivals to dominate the web. It took years to wean the web from its reliance on theintroduced in 2001.
This time things are different, though: Where Microsoft let IE languish after its victory, stalling web progress for years, Google’s Chrome team continues to invest aggressively. And because it’s mostly open-source, anyone can use the software for their own purposes — and indeed, Microsoft, Brave, Opera, Vivaldi, Samsung, Baidu and Yandex have built their browsers on Chrome’s innards. And even if Chrome dominates, Google generally sticks to open-web principles and has collaborated with rivals.
People initially laughed at Chrome, recounted Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, the Chrome team leader who joined the project shortly after in 2009. But Google stuck to its mission. “It was designed for complex, rich web applications — the direction where computing was going,” he said.
Nobody’s laughing now. That’s where the computing still is headed today, and Chrome is towing the rest of us along.
What makes Chrome stand out
When Chrome emerged, it swept away the conventional browser look. Gone was the clutter of menu items and toolbars — the user interface “chrome” after which Google named the browser. Tabs, which let you handle multiple tasks at once in a browser, were no longer buried in that interface but instead promoted to the top of the window to reflect their multitasking importance.
The idea was to put websites front and center, an approach every browser since has embraced.
Chrome also set a new standard for browser security by isolating browser tabs into separate memory compartments for running website code. That not only kept one tab crash from bringing down the whole browser, but also stopped hackers from turning a successful website attack into broader control of your computer.
Setting new standards
Chrome’s multiprocess design is now standard for browsers. Taking the idea one step farther this year, Google again led the way with a feature called site isolation that protects against the new Spectre-style attacks only discovered in recent months.
It’s one of many security advancements. Another is Chrome’s six-week automatic update cycle, which keeps Chrome “evergreen” and takes the responsibility for security patches (and other upgrades) out of ordinary folks’ hands. Google also has paid outside security researchers $4.2 million and counting in a bug bounty program to find Chrome vulnerabilities.
Chrome is now a leader in a push to encrypt all browser connections to websites, a change that curtails government snooping and stops website tampering that can abet hackers trying to steal passwords. And Chrome’s operating system offshoot, the Chrome OS, a Windows and MacOS rival launched in 2009 also is a hit in security circles.
And more broadly, Chrome has advanced the web itself, accelerating the pace of development so developers can stretch their wings and websites can become more useful, entertaining or powerful. Each new feature or security fix in Chrome arrives rapidly through an auto-update approach Google pioneered, delivering updates every six weeks.
Lots of that work to improve the web takes place in plodding standards groups like the World Wide Web Consortium, Ecma TC-39 and the Internet Engineering Task Force in cooperation — or contention — with other browser makers. It’s slow work, but it ensures Chrome was instrumental in the renaissance of web technology loosely called HTML5 that improved graphics and introduced built-in video and audio.
Frost sings Google’s praises for bringing new features to the web faster. “That used to take years,” he said. “Now every month there’s some really large stuff landing.”
Making the web a foundation for everything
Much of that standards work today focuses on making the web a better universal platform. The web started with document publishing, expanded to shopping and email and search, and now hosts everything from streaming video and online chat to casual games and flowing streams of tweets.
Building that universal foundation has been Google’s vision from the get-go — something that meshes well with Google’s vast range of online services.
“I do pretty much everything inside a browser,” Pichai said at the Chrome launch event. “When you spend that much time in a browser, you start thinking about what are the kinds of things you could do if you rethought the browser from scratch?”
Pichai uttered those words just before the first mobile phone powered by Google’s Android software arrived, though. And on smartphones, we mostly use native apps, not web apps, for our common activities like taking photos, checking email, getting directions or checking Facebook.
But a years-long Chrome projects now embraced by other browsers could change that. Technology called progressive web apps (PWAs) present web apps the same way you see native apps — as an icon on your phone’s screen. The technology also lets web apps work even when there’s no network connection and lets them receive notifications.
“People have learned how to build for the mobile web,” Fisher said. The web remains compelling as a fast, low-friction way “to put pixels in front of a user” without the hassles of installing mobile apps, he said.
Mobile web successes with PWAs
There’s evidence it’s working. The Twitter Lite PWA, geared for emerging markets, “rivals the performance of our native apps but requires less than 3 percent of the device storage space compared to Twitter for Android,” said Twitter Lite engineering leader Nicolas Gallagher, and people use it 65 percent more than the previous web app. And weekly usage of Pinterest doubled when it released its PWA compared to its previous mobile website.
Google itself uses PWAs for its Google Maps Go version in emerging markets. It works offline though it lacks built-in turn-by-turn directions.
PWAs offer web fans hope that our lives on iPhones and Android phones won’t just be about apps.
“There’s definitely some chance the web can win this,” said Kenneth Christiansen, senior web platform architect at Intel and a member of the W3C Technical Architecture Group that helps guide the web’s future.
Learning from mistakes
Both flopped as browser rivals and web developers gave them the cold shoulder.
“It’s not a standard,” Christiansen said of Native Client. “It’s a big chunk of code nobody wants to use.”
Google says it’s learned its lesson. “You have to do things in an open way,” even if that’s slower, Roy-Chowdhury said. “If no other browser vendor is interested in joining us, it behooves us to understand why.”
Chrome’s tracking conundrum
Another sticky situation for Chrome is figuring out how to handle tracking software that websites and web ads use to track you online. Trackers can invade privacy, slow down websites, drain your battery and use up your monthly mobile network data allowance.
Safari blocks some trackers by default, and browser startup Brave blocks all of them. Mozilla announced last week that Firefox will block many trackers in coming months, too. That’s all great for ordinary folks using the web, but not great for companies that rely on profiling us so they can tailor online ads we’re more likely to be interested in. Google, it goes without saying, is one of the giants of online advertising.
“Google is an ad-driven company, and as much as they care about security, their outlook on privacy is severely lacking,” said William Budington, lead developer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation of the Panopticlick browser extension that thwarts some website efforts to profile us online. “They’re going to be perceived as falling behind if they don’t do something,” now that rival browsers promote their own tracker protection technology, he said.
But the Chrome team can change the browser in ways that Google’s ad team might not like, Roy-Chowdhury said. One change years ago reined in flashy ads, for example, and this year, Chrome also started blocking ads on websites that were overstuffed with them.
As for trackers, “This is an area we’re actively discussing,” he said. As with ad blocking, Google doesn’t want to block everything, a move that would dry up much of the revenue that keeps web businesses alive.
“We’d like to bring more of a scalpel,” something that “punishes the bad experiences but doesn’t punish the good experiences,” Roy-Chowdhury said. “Our goal is to make sure sure the ecosystem remains viable.”
How much dominance is too much?
There’s another kind of viability at stake now, though: the open web.
Web developers naturally concentrate their energy on the technology their website visitors use, and today, that’s mostly Chrome. Fair enough — but tough luck if you’re using another browser.
“I’m not necessarily worried what Google would do with 60 or 70 percent market share. I’m more worried about what the web community would do,” by supporting only Chrome, Frost said.
Google is guilty, too. Offline access to G Suite’s word processor and spreadsheet and Gmail messages requires Chrome if you want to use those tools without a network connection. The Allo messaging service and Google Play Music only worked only on Chrome initially. Google Flights gave Firefox the cold shoulder for a time, and Firefox users went months without full Hangouts chat abilities.
And if you use Google properties like Gmail, Google Docs and search with non-Chrome browsers, you’ll also see prominent promotions to switch to Chrome — promotions that come back no matter how often you click “not interested.”
Taken to an extreme, the open web dies, Christiansen said. “It becomes a proprietary platform,” he said.
But what’s Google going to do, slow its effort to improve Chrome? Not likely. For now, count your blessings that Google wants a better web.
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