Google Chrome needs a bit more polishing

For about three months, I have been taking Google’s Chrome browser out for an extended spin. What I am discovering is that while there is a lot to love about Chrome, it has some usability issues that annoy me.

As I noted three months ago, you have to love Chrome for how fast it is. It both loads quickly and renders web pages quickly. Although a new browser, it has proven to be much more stable than my browser for the last seven years, Mozilla Firefox. My instability issues with Firefox may have a lot to do with poor engineering of the many user created add-ons that I have grown accustomed to. Arguably, Chrome is better engineered for both stability and speed. One way it does both is by assigning one computer thread to each open tab window.

Three months ago, add-ons (or extensions as they call them) for Chrome were relatively few. That has changed dramatically. You can find equivalent extensions for most of Firefox’s voluminous add-ons, often written by the same developers who created them for Firefox. In some cases, they lack the maturity of the original Firefox add-on. The Firebug extension for Chrome, at least as of this writing, is just Firebug-Lite, which has maybe fifty percent of the features of the full Firefox add-on. If I need to peer deep into the document object model of a web page to troubleshoot it, I am using Firefox with the Firebug add-on. Still, most of the extensions I care about are already there, often in many subtly different flavors. These include Web Developer, an XMarks bookmarks synchronization tool, Web of Trust (which lets you know of suspicious sites), a Web to PDF converter, a webpage screenshot tool, a tool that automatically converts text links into real links, Chromed Bird (a really sweet Twitter extension), a Weather Underground add-on and a Yahoo Mail Notifier. Doubtless, I would find many more “must have” extensions if I spent more time trying them out.

You would expect Chrome to have a tight integration with the Google Search Engine, but it is not yet smart enough to act like Firefox’s Awesome Bar, which intelligently tracks your most frequent queries and finds them by typing a few characters on the URL field. Similarly, Firefox’s Bookmarks toolbar (where your bookmarks conveniently rest on a window on the side of the browser) is so much more usable than Chrome’s “Other Bookmarks” button and navigating through the multiple levels of bookmarks to get to the bookmark of choice.

In addition, Chrome could use a real menu system, so you can easily get to every feature. (You do get one with the MacOS version because MacOS requires it.) Say you want to open a local file or print a web page. You can click on the “Control the Current Page” button and get to it there, but it is counterintuitive and breaks the standard desktop computing metaphor. Instead, I clicked on the “Customize and Control” button (the little wrench icon) expecting it would be there, but it wasn’t. I sure would also like to be able to add a print button to the toolbar, but if there is a way to do it, it is not intuitive.

I understand why Google made these major changes. They wanted to maximize the extent of the browser window on the assumption that content is what really matters and every pixel counts. The reality is that using a browser requires an intelligent tradeoff between viewing web pages and swiftly navigating to (or finding) where you want to go, and that requires real estate for more controls. Chrome made too many compromises and broke too many metaphors in pursuit of its Holy Grail of making the largest possible browser window.

To understand why they became so anal, you have to remember their long-term vision. They want to kill Windows, and if they kill MacOS as well, they will be even happier. Their vision of the future is that everyone is carrying around a netbook running their ChromeOS operating system which will boot very quickly and immediately dump you into the Chrome browser. All your applications would be web applications that run inside of Chrome. In the netbook world, almost everyone is accessing as a wireless device and they are likely to be keyboard challenged as well. They want to wrest our minds away from the PC metaphor of menus and task bars into something new and compact, behaving more like an intelligent cell phone or iPad. Chrome aligns fine with their Chrome OS vision, but while we live in the Windows/MacOS world, the disconnect is quite jarring. It’s like sitting in a Prius and looking desperately for the slot for the ignition key. In short, right now it’s just weird.

Having said these things, Chrome is so smoking fast that a lot of the time I don’t care. If I just want to search the web to visit a few favorite sites or want integrated access to their search engine, it excels. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to having my browser do all these other tricks. Making Chrome do them as well is going to take time. I suspect Google’s engineers will get us there if we are patient.

At work because I have an extensive collection of bookmarks for obscure places I need to go to quickly in order to do my job, the small latency and instability in Firefox is a small price to pay versus the speed and counterintuitive ways that Chrome works. At home, where my needs are more modest and I have MacOS, I use Chrome. Meanwhile, feeling the heat and losing market share to Chrome, Mozilla is trying to speed up Firefox by imitating Chrome by placing each tab in a thread. Unfortunately, it will take some time implement it, as it requires a lot of reengineering. If they do it quickly enough, I may continue to stay with Firefox indefinitely. Given that Google’s pockets are far deeper than Mozilla’s, I am not too hopeful.

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