Google Chrome 4 goes live with extensions: How much closer to Firefox now?
After a few months' development time, supporters of Google's Chrome browser -- based on the open source Chromium platform -- have had only a narrow window to produce a full library of extensions and add-ons for the grand opening of Chrome's new gallery. That apparently didn't weigh too heavily on developers' minds, as yesterday's ribbon cutting on the first stable Chrome 4 release featured a very well-stocked gallery.
Up to now, it's Chrome's lack of extensibility that denies it a place on the online workbench. That may begin to change now that Chrome's extensions emerge beyond the beta phase. Officially, Microsoft Internet Explorer has add-ons as well, but IE hasn't garnered nearly the same degree of support and enthusiasm in the community as Firefox. If the early going for Chrome is any indication, Google is applying the lessons it's learned from Android, and is well on its way to achieving at least par with Firefox in the extensibility category.
Browser extensions as "apps"
With Chrome, unlike Firefox, an extension is like an "app" on a handset. It has an icon and an assigned place on Chrome's main bar, to the right of the address box -- what Google calls the "Omnibox." That's Chrome's single text box, which pulls double-duty as an address box and a search box; if you type something into the Omnibox that doesn't translate as a Web address, Chrome sends it to Google (or your default search engine of choice) for processing there. Since Chrome is already a blazingly fast browser, there doesn't appear to be any time lost while a search query defaults over to the search engine.
That said, I've never really taken to this double-duty approach, as efficient as it seems on paper. Perhaps I've just become accustomed to every function in its own place, and maybe in time, I'd grow out of that habit -- I expect other users out there not to be as set in their ways as I am.
So the first add-on I began searching for from Chrome's new Extensions library is something that could give me an exclusive search box. What I found was a third-party extension that, in the spirit of Google (straightforward with no gimmicks), is called Search Box. It adds a magnifying glass icon to the Chrome toolbar; click on that, and Search Box pulls up a separate search text box, not only for Google but for other general and specific search engines as well, including Bing and Wikipedia.
A more convenient option would be to simply add a permanent, separate search box -- at least for me. But that's not Google's development model for Chrome: It wants extensions to be single-button icons, located in one row, that do discrete things. At one level, this simplifies things: Even Google itself has chosen to produce single apps, like Translate, on a one-click icon rather than enable a separate toolbar. With a modicum of fiddling around with third-party add-ons in Firefox, you could clutter the entire screen with separate, custom toolbars, hanging along every frame imaginable. Chrome steers developers away from that nightmare with the one-click approach, so even though it ends up adding a click to extensions like Search Box, it does help developers maintain their focus on single tasks.
Chrome also disables the ability for search engine competitors to claim large chunks of real estate in the browser, as all the major ones -- Bing, Yahoo, Ask.com, and most successfully of all, Google itself -- have a tendency to do. Quite a bit of freeware downloadable through Fileforum, for example, is supported through the inclusion of Yahoo Toolbar as a default download option; Google chokes off that chain of possible competition in Chrome. Independent developers appear to have come to competitors' rescue here; for instance, there's buttons for Yahoo Mail, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and many of the Web's other major brands.
Breaking free from the one-click model
Already, some of the first Chrome extensions have found a way to make their mark outside of their designated parking spaces in Chrome's lone toolbar. One of them is a transport (not quite a direct port) from the Firefox world: Called FastestFox (previously known as SmarterFox, no relation to FasterFox), the developer's first effort at moving this to Chrome not only pre-loads portions of pages from other hyperlinked pages into a separate cache, but it also can augment the content of certain pages, especially Google. For instance, FastestFox adds links just above Google's search results, containing buttons for continuing your search on other folks' search engines; and through options, you can control designate which ones.
FasterFox amends Chrome's Google search pages with links to other search engines.
Chrome doesn't give third-party developers much on-screen real estate to signal their presence, so FastestFox's approach is not only direct but beneficial. On occasion, when conducting long searches on very technical topics, I'm not always certain Google has the most complete index. More often than not, I'm wrong, but when I'm up late trying to figure out why Exchange 2010 has installed more than one virtual directory for the Autodiscover feature, for instance, and whether other admins out there have the same problem, there are times when I simply need reassurance.
Also, if you highlight any text on any page anywhere, FastestFox will pop up a little "speaking bubble" that lets you search for more information on the highlighted text, from any of the search engines inside the bubble represented with icons.
This is some of the useful stuff that Chrome has been missing -- the level of functionality that has made testers wish they could move over to Chrome, "if only." Right now, there are a few flies in the ointment still (for some reason, you can't control the search engines that FastestFox adds to your Google page). But throughout an entire day of testing, none of the most-wanted functions we saw actually crashed or presented so much as a cosmetic blemish -- the first extensions we've played with today are pretty solid, even the ones with version numbers earlier than 1.0.
Next: Overcoming the too-many-tabs problem...