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Inside Chrome: The Secret Project to Crush IE and Remake the Web

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Old 09-02-2008
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Inside Chrome: The Secret Project to Crush IE and Remake the Web
Google also brought in reinforcements to implement the multiprocess architecture that allowed each open tab to run like a separate, self-contained program. In May 2007, it acquired GreenBorder Technologies, a software security firm whose technology was designed to isolate IE and Firefox activities into virtual sessions, or "sandboxes," where malware intrusions couldn't mess with other activities or data on your computer. When the deal was announced publicly, tech pundits wondered whether it meant that Google was going into the antivirus business. Only after the acquisition did GreenBorder's engineers learn that their job was to construct sandboxes for the tabs of a new browser. "It was confusing," says Carlos Pizano, one of the GreenBorder hires. "They would not say what they wanted to sandbox."
The team was growing, but the process never got bogged down in bureaucracy. In the project's early stages, Chromers would all have lunch together at a table in one of the Google cafés. Soon even the largest table couldn't accommodate them all. Working in an open source spirit, every engineer was free to check out any piece of code and tweak or improve it. Rakowski always tried to keep things light, one day awarding tins of chrome polish to the best bug catchers.
As the plumbing aspects of the product fell into place, activity focused on user interface. From the beginning, the Chrome team hoped that its visual presentation would be so understated that people wouldn't even think they were using a browser. The mantra became "Content, not chrome," which is sort of weird given the name of the browser. ("We've learned to live with the irony," Mark Larson says.) The clearest expression of this comes when you drag a tab containing a Web application like Gmail to its own separate window and specify that you want an "app shortcut." At that point, the tabs, buttons, and address bars fall away and the Web app looks pretty much like a desktop app. Welcome to the cloud era.
When deciding what buttons and features to include, the team began with the mental exercise of eliminating everything, then figuring out what to restore. The back button? No-brainer. The forward button? Less essential, but it survived. But if you're a big fan of the browser status bar — that meter that tells you what percent of a page has loaded — you're out of luck with Chrome.
And then there was the bookmarks bar. At first, engineers thought they could kill it. Chrome introduces several new navigation methods, including one where the browser figures out where you want to go next with no typing required. And when you do type something in, you use the "omnibox," a combination of address bar and search box: Just tell it what you're thinking and it delivers a Web address, search results, or popular destinations that fit your query, all in non-intrusive text underneath the box. It's a bulked-up version of "I'm Feeling Lucky." Still, user tests showed that some people just love to navigate by clicking on the bookmark bar. The compromise: If the user has previously configured the bar in IE or Firefox, Chrome will import the setup. Otherwise, users won't have a bookmark bar unless they choose to.
It's incredible that something as potentially game-changing as a Google browser has stayed under wraps for two years. It wasn't until mid-2007, about a year into the project, that the team let employees outside the group even see what they were doing. At the first of a series of Tech Talks featuring the current prototype (events designed, in part, as a way of recruiting internally for the ever-growing team) the reaction was volcanic. Googlers broke into spontaneous applause when various features, like dragging a tab into a new window, were demo'd. As the number of people who knew about Chrome increased, the inevitable occurred — word did leak out to a blog or two, yet nothing came of those stray items. No reporter put it all together. "I think it was because rumors about Google browsers have been around so long — it's like sightings of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster," Upson says.
On the eve of the launch, Pichai shares some of his ambitions for Chrome. How many people will use it? "Many millions," he says. "I want my mom to use it. I want my dad to use it." The Google imprimatur doesn't assure success, but Pichai believes that even if Chrome doesn't snare huge market share, its innovations will improve the landscape. "We benefit directly if the Web gets better," he says.
As launch approaches, the team has just moved into new space in a freshly renovated building on the Google campus, and there's another all-hands gathering in the biggest conference room available. It's standing room only. Milk and cookies are provided. After some initial business, Rakowski hands the floor over to Goodger. The rumpled engineer talks about the benefits of making Chrome an open source product — the code will be publicly released and a community will emerge to determine the browser's evolution. "We'll be able to scale our testing efforts," he says. "It'll enable people to do things we haven't thought of. And it'll generate trust that we're not doing something evil."
As the meeting breaks up, the energy level is over the top, and not just because of the sugar rush. The Chrome team is close to unleashing the product that Google was destined to create. First, though, there are five bugs to swat.
Senior writer Steven Levy(steven_levy@wired.com) also writes about Jay Walker's in the October issue of Wired.


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