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Serious Potential in Google’s Browser

Does the world really need another Web browser?

Google thinks so. Chrome, its new browser, was developed in secrecy and released to the world Tuesday. The Windows version is available for download now at google.com/chrome; the Mac and Linux versions will take a little longer.

Google argues that current Web browsers were designed eons ago, before so many of the developments that characterize today’s Web: video everywhere, scams and spyware, viruses that lurk even on legitimate sites, Web-based games and ambitious Web-based programs like Google’s own Docs word processor. As Google’s blog puts it, “We realized that the Web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications and that we needed to completely rethink the browser.”

What this early version of Chrome accomplishes isn’t quite that grand. But it is a first-rate beginning.

With no status bar, no menu bar and only a single toolbar (for bookmarks), Chrome is minimalist in the extreme.

Some might even call it stripped-down. This initial version is labeled “beta,” meaning it is still in testing. True, Google labels almost everything beta — four-year-old Gmail is still in beta — but this time it’s serious.

At the moment, for example, there’s no way to e-mail a Web page to someone, no full-screen mode, no way to magnify the page (rather than just the text), and no bookmarks organizing screen. Google says that these features are at the top of its to-do list.

Chrome is, nonetheless, full of really smart features that seem to have been inspired by other browsers — or ripped off from them, depending on your level of cynicism.

Take the address bar. As you start to type, a menu of suggestions appears immediately beneath — a list culled not just from pages you’ve visited before, but also from your bookmarks, search suggestions and popular Web pages that you haven’t yet visited. That works even the first time you try it, since Chrome auto-imports your bookmarks, history and even stored passwords from your old browser. (See also: the similar address bars in Firefox and Internet Explorer 8, also now in beta testing.)

If you’ve ever searched Amazon, eBay, nytimes.com or another popular site, another cool shortcut awaits. You can just type the site’s first letter in the address bar and then press Tab. Do that with “A,” for example, and the address bar changes to “Search amazon.com,” allowing you to search within that site without even going there first. You’ve saved one big step.

As your start-up page, Chrome displays pictures of nine mini-Web pages, representing your most frequently visited sites. (See also: the Opera browser’s Speed Dial feature.) This start-up page also lists several of your most recently visited sites and searches, making it a natural, time-saving starting point. (You can designate a more standard Home page if you prefer by clicking on the Options command that hides in one of the two menu icons.)

The “Create application shortcuts” command (also hiding in those menus) generates an icon on your desktop. When you click it, the corresponding site opens without the usual address bar and buttons — in other words, it now works exactly like a regular desktop program. For services like Gmail or blogging software, this feature further blurs the line between online and offline software.

Downloading files is really easy. A status button appears at the bottom of your browser window — there’s no Downloads window to get in your way. You click that button to open the downloaded file, without having to worry about what folder it wound up in.

If you believe Google, though, the best stuff is all under the hood. For example, Google chose, as the underlying Web-page processing software, the same existing “rendering engine” inside Apple’sSafari browser.

As a result, Chrome is quick — faster than Internet Explorer, although not quite as fast as Firefox or Safari. Since Chrome came out only Tuesday, I haven’t had time to test it on all 40 billion Web pages on the Internet (I gave up around dinnertime). Very few Web sites gave Chrome problems, though. NBCOlympics.com, for example, failed to recognize Chrome and therefore refused to play its videos, but that will change; nobody ignores Google these days. (Will Chrome beat Microsoft's Internet Explorer? See the video above for a discussion.)

Also under the hood are what Google considers some of Chrome’s most important features — the security enhancements. Google says that each tab runs in its own “sandbox,” so that if there’s nasty spyware-type software running on one Web site, it has no access to the rest of your computer, or even the other tabs. Google asserts that this is much stronger protection than Internet Explorer 8 gives you, especially in Windows XP. (Internet Explorer 8 supplies its best protection only in Windows Vista.)

Also in the security category: something called Incognito mode, in which no cookies, passwords or cache files are saved, and the browser’s History list records no trace of your activity. (See also: Safari, Internet Explorer 8.) Google cheerfully suggests that you can use Incognito mode “to plan surprises like gifts or birthdays,” but they’re not fooling anyone; the bloggers call it “porn mode.”

For more of the techie details about Chrome security, Google has created what may be the most innovative feature of all: an utterly charming comic book — yes, comic book — that explains the browser and its features.

Already, speculation is running rampant online. Will Chrome catch on? What about Google’s business relationships with its competitors?

And above all: what is Google up to?

Is it trying to build a platform for running the software of the future, thereby de-emphasizing Windows and other operating systems?

That’s a yes. Google even went to the trouble of rewriting Javascript, the programming language that underlies many such online programs. According to online Javascript speed tests, Google’s version is twice as fast as IE7’s.

Will Google ensure that its own services run better in Chrome than in other browsers? Is this part of Google’s great conspiracy?

That’s a no and a no. Chrome is open-source, meaning that its code is available to everyone for inspection or improvement — even to its rivals. That’s a huge, promising twist that ought to shut up the conspiracy theorists.

For now, it’s best to think of Chrome as exactly what it purports to be: a promising, modern, streamlined, nonbloated, very secure alternative to today’s browsers. You should do exactly what Microsoft, Apple and the Firefox folks will all be doing: try it out and keep your eye on it.

Because every now and then, Google’s fresh approach ends up dominating its once much bigger competitors (See also: AltaVista, Lycos, Ask ...)

David Pogue is a columnist for the New York Times and contributor to CNBC. He can be emailed at: pogue@nytimes.com.

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