Google Chrome takes more than just inspiration from Mozilla

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FOTW - Google Chrome 0.2A few of the names appearing in Google's promotional "graphic novel" for the first beta of its own Web browser, may ring bells for anyone who was a beta tester of Firefox 3. So just what kind of browser war does Google plan to wage?

A check of the names appearing in Google's unique introductory comic book for its new Google Chrome browser, whose beta is expected for wide release today, reveals that the new open source browser, which promises fundamental architectural changes to the nature of browsing itself, has more in common with Mozilla's Firefox 3 than just inspiration. Software engineers Ben Goodger, Darin Fisher, and Pam Greene are all prominently featured as presenters in the graphic promo; and all three were credited as principal contributors to Firefox's latest version.

"As excited as we are about building Google Chrome, it's important to help all browsers become more powerful -- to keep evolving with the Web and continuing to build a solid foundation for modern Web applications," reads the final page of the comic book, in a passage whose "voice" is shared with a hand-drawn character representing Greene. "We owe a great debt to other open source browser projects, especially Mozilla and Webkit. This is our contribution, and we hope people will take some of these ideas, too; challenge them, build on them, and keep moving the Web forward."

It's publicly known, though not often publicly shared, that many of the Mozilla organization's developers are actually employed full-time by other organizations. Goodger and Fisher, for instance -- who have remained relatively prominent in Firefox development -- were hired by Google back in January 2005. Though the hiring was largely played as though Google had hired them "away" from Mozilla, in the vein of hiring developers "away" from Microsoft (which is another story), Mozilla to this point has been content to share its braintrust with Google and other major employers, in the interest of open source development.

But Google's latest move in actually building a competitive browser, whose architecture includes the Webkit rendering engine used by Apple's Safari, plus a completely new JavaScript engine called V8 that will indeed compete with Mozilla's new TraceMonkey -- a highly anticipated feature of Firefox 3.1 -- makes one wonder whether Google's policy truly does resemble Microsoft's after all: keeping its friends close, but its enemies closer. Just last week, it was revealed that Google extended its investment in the Mozilla Foundation for another three years, ensuring one of Mozilla's key sources of revenue for funding its continued development of a product that it persists in giving away for free.

A key architectural feature of Google Chrome will be its treatment of each tabbed Web page as a separate process, with plug-ins and JavaScript engines bound directly to the tab rather than to the window as a whole. This way, when Adobe Reader or Flash or Apple QuickTime crashes -- as it may still be prone to do -- the browser window persists, with only the impacted tab becoming "sad."

Such architecture has not been planned, as far as we know, for a specific future version of Firefox; although Mozilla Labs does maintain a handful of independent, open source projects which delve into possible future directions for browser architecture, without any precise timeline or commitment to ship. With Chrome becoming an official beta project of Google, its architectural innovations could very well acquire the timelines that Mozilla Labs lacks, which could mean that Google may be first to "ship" with ideas that the Labs' contributors -- who do not appear to be associated with Google -- are still treating as embryonic.

With Google Pack being an effective distribution tool for Mozilla Firefox, it's worth pondering whether it could eventually find itself replaced?

"First, browsers need to be stable," reads a passage from the graphic promo attributed to Darin Fisher. "When you're writing an important e-mail or editing a document, a browser crash is a big deal."

"And we want browsers to find that sweet spot between too many features and too few, with a clean, simple, and efficient user interface," Ben Goodger's character continues.

If stability and simplicity have been priorities for browser development from Goodger's and Fisher's vantage point, Mozilla may want to ask itself, to whom do these developers feel most aligned when priorities are at issue?

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