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This piece was inspired by spending the past few days using the RC1 version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8. But it’s really a sequel-of-sorts to a blog post I wrote for PC World back in March of last year, when the first beta of IE 8 appeared. That one was called Internet Explorer 8 and the Boring Era of Web Browsers, and the gist was that even though browsers mattered more than ever in this era where we spend so much of our lives on the Web, Microsoft and other browser companies seemed to be focusing on under-the-hood improvements (like better support for Web standards) and were short on strikingly new features that let folks use their browsers in new ways. (IE 8′s Accelerators and Web Slices, for instance, are its most significant new tools–and they’re just not that big a whoop.)
In the eleven months or so since I blogged that browsers were boring, the biggest news in the category by far has been the release of Google Chrome. Which is an extremely clever and usable piece of software–I’m not using it every day, but I’ll be tempted to do so once the Mac version finally shows up. (Or, for that matter, if I like Windows 7 enough to tilt the balance of my computing day back into the Microsoftian world.)
Here’s a fascinating paradox for you: Chrome is really interesting because it’s unafraid to be really boring. If you judged it based purely on the sheer quantity of features it sports compared to IE, Firefox, Opera, and Safari, it would flunk spectacularly–even basic stuff like bookmark management is on the skimpy side. But Chrome is a fresh idea because of the extraordinary lengths it goes to to stay out of your face. It strips away interface details–like menus, of which it has only two–to let you focus on the Web site you’re using. (You can even run Web applications in a mode that makes Chrome disappear altogether, as if the Web app were simply an app.) Its emphasis on fast performance is also an unflashy goal that’s meant to make the sites you use–and not Chrome itself–shine. It’s also the only browser with Google’s Gears offline technology built in, enabling Web apps to work even when the Web doesn’t.
Chrome’s goal, ultimately, is to fade into the background. That’s admirable, and it makes it the most intriguing browser of the moment. But it also means that Google is likely to err on the side of caution about adding new features–I wouldn’t be surprised if Chrome grows more minimalist over time, rather than more powerful. (There’s a long list of features that I hope Google builds into Chrome, though, such as seamless synching of settings and bookmarks across the Net and smart integration with Gmail, Google Maps, and other Googley services.)
Will other browser companies follow Google’s lead? Probably, at least to some extent: Everybody seems to agree that improving the architectural fundamentals that make a browser speedy rather than sluggish is important, and much of what’s new in recent versions of IE, Firefox, and other contenders involves reducing the number of dialog boxes and fields and clicks you need to contend with to get stuff done. Chrome is only five months old as I write this, so its influence on its rivals is yet to be seen. But I’m guessing that just about every other browser will cheerfully borrow ideas from Chrome in upcoming versions (just as Chrome isn’t shy about stealing features from other browsers, including IE 8).
I used to believe that operating systems such as Windows and OS X were on their way to becoming important-but-mundane middleware and that we’d all spend more time thinking about the browsers we’d use than the operating systems beneath them. These days, I’m thinking that we may end up largely ignoring the browser, too. In a way, it would mark a return to early days of computing: Think of future OSes and browsers as prosaic, DOS-like plumbing, and Web sites and services as the Lotus 1-2-3 and WordPerfect of tomorrow. If things develop that way, it’ll be cool for consumers–and a great big challenge for any software company that doesn’t have any truly revolutionary features up its sleeve.
As always, I want to know what you think: Let me know if you have any thoughts on any of this…or at least let me know what browser you’re using these days and how you feel about it.