Interview: what's next for Google Chrome

26th Feb 2009 | 09:42

Interview: what's next for Google Chrome

"Distinction between OS and browser doesn't matter" says Google's JavaScript head

Chrome's JavaScript engine

For many, Google Chrome's arrival in the already competitive browser market was a real bolt from the blue, but for software engineer Lars Bak it was the end product of years of work.

Bak heads up the development of the v8 JavaScript engine in Chrome, one of the key features of Google's browser and also one of the most innovative.

In the past few months, the importance of browsers coping with JavaScript and the web apps that are built on it have become increasingly obvious, and its something that Bak has been delighted to see.

"It's fantastic," he tells TechRadar. "This is exactly why we started two-and-a-half years ago.

"When we started we were facing no competition; all browsers had the same speed in terms of JavaScript and it turned out to be bit of a bottle neck for web applications.

"So that's exactly the reason we started to try to get more speed in JavaScript and enable bigger JavaScript web applications.

"I think not everything about browsers is JavaScript – but the best thing about JavaScript and its performance is it's measurable so it's very comparable in browsers.

"When we started out the whole idea was to spark innovation into the field because as soon as we come out with v8 you could see other browsers coming out with their own version of faster JavaScript."

TR: Do you feel that it was Chrome's focus on JavaScript and your innovations that prompted other browsers to put more focus on it?

LB: "I hope that our innovation was what prompted that. It certainly looked like that within the timeline. It's a reasonable explanation.

"It doesn't really matter because you also have to think about having one [fast] browser when all the others are slow is no good because all the apps have to be designed for the lowest common denominator. So we want all browsers to be fast.

"If you look at the history of JavaScript it was originally designed to do things like have a pushable button, but it moved beyond that to become what nobody expected; namely a programming language for web applications.

"And I think one of the reasons we started from scratch in terms of browsers was that we didn't believe that the existing platforms were robust and scalable enough for building a high performance engine.

"In essence, what we wanted to show was that we could build a JavaScript engine which is scalable and have enough juice left to run future web applications."

TR: Do you think you've managed to build a web browser that is a little closer to being future proof in terms of web apps?

LB: "Yes, I think I'd say that. I mean we haven't designed the whole thing from scratch. I worked on virtual machines for 20 years on languages like Java, and Chrome is certainly standing on the shoulders of these systems.

"I believe that we have some of these features so that we have a generation-based JavaScript which means that if you have a large working set inside a JavaScript engine it will still perform well.

"Most web apps today aren't using that scalability but it will come."

Third party support

"There are many aspects of Chrome that are interesting. Personally I like the very taut UI which means that if you run it on an old laptop very little of the screen is used for the UI.

"And also Chrome has been designed with the notion of not getting in your way so you don't get pop-up boxes or distractions, so you're really on the webpage all the time and that's great.

"Then there are some of the more interesting features like multiple tabs with each one running as a separate process. That adds security and independence so you'll probably notice that if you take Chrome, compared to many browsers, that each tab will work independently.

"You'll not crash, that's one thing, but performance-wise with other browsers each tab still uses the same JavaScript engine and then everything starts to get slower and slower the more tabs you have, because the working set of that one engine gets bigger and bigger."

TR: Obviously there has been a lot of talk about the lack of third-party extension support, is that coming soon?

LB: "We're working on that. As we said in the blog this is coming this year and it's certainly something that you want.

"But when you are working on a new project it's important to focus on the basics, like our UI for instance, and I think other things come later and that's what we're doing.

"I'm pretty sure there will be a healthy market for people building these extensions for Chrome."

TR: Some of the recent browser releases seem to have taken some of their style cues from Chrome – is this a good thing?

LB: "I don't know if it's imitation, but the main reason we started this project was to encourage innovation.

"We've always been open about the source code and it's available to everybody, so if someone is using things like the tabs at the top of the page then we are all for it.

"Encouraging innovation is already the cornerstone of the whole Chrome project when we started, so this is great – it may be annoying for some people but not for us.

"Competition is great, especially if the way in which it is done is shared. In the end it benefits the users.

"I think it's great that people have options; they can try different browsers out.

"At Google we try a lot of different browsers and different designs and people should try them out and use the one that they like the best.

"Choice is important and the healthy competition that is going on right now will benefit the user and it will ultimately make people feel more comfortable with using the web."

Operating system vs the browser

TR: The browser and the operating system are becoming increasingly difficult to tell apart aren't they?

LB: "Some people think that when they don't have Wi-fi access and their browser isn't working their computer is broken!

"It's interesting; it's seems like when people are buying new machines they don't install native apps. They get a new computer and all they use is the browser.

"The web is becoming an integral part of the computer and the basic distinction between the OS and the browser doesn't matter very much any more.

"In terms of Google and Chrome all internal apps are web based so we're adopting all the stuff inside the browser already."

TR: So should speed be the deciding factor when it comes to browser choice?

LB: "One also has to have your priorities straight why you are selecting a browser. Speed is certainly a factor but so is robustness. In Chrome we really tried to make it a robust browser.

"People also like the simplicity which means you can understand what's going on.

"I think its speed is important, but also the speed of whole browser, as we move on and as we have more standardised web apps, it will be easier to measure the performance of a browser as a whole."

TR: With Windows 7 arriving and IE8 are people still going to move to non-default browsers like Chrome of Firefox?

LB: "I think since the download is just one click away it's not that big a deal.

"At first you will get techies, but people are influenced by them – so I don't know if it will change it but hopefully competition will allow the user to download the browser that suits them best.

TR: Chrome is still relatively new – how is it performing?

LB: "The feedback we've had on chrome is tremendously positive. Its first final release came out in December so it is only a quarter-year old and bearing that in mind I think we have a fairly good market share. Everyone already has a browser so it will take a while, but if you have the right features, people will come.

"We want to make it better for users, and with the complexity of web apps taking off these days what you see is more features and more capabilities.

"I love the basic fact that people do not have to update a web app; whenever they start the app in the web browser they get the updated application."

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