Chrome-Plated Browsing

September 24, 2009

Sometimes you almost feel sorry for Microsoft.  First Bill Gates, in the first edition of his book, The Road Ahead, in 1995, dismissed the Internet as a fad.  Then, after realizing it might turn out to be a bit more than that (and rushing out a new, corrected edition of the book), he focused Microsoft’s energies on adapting to the Internet.  And despite some inconveniences, like an anti-trust trial, Microsoft managed to see off Netscape, the maker of the only competitive Web browser.  No sooner had they relaxed, though, than the Mozilla organization introduced the Firefox browser (originally called Phoenix, then  Firebird), and began to eat some of Microsoft’s lunch.

Now Google has gotten into the act, too.  The Google Chrome browser was introduced in September of last year, and has quickly gained a reputation for its speed, as well as for some new approaches to stability and security.  In particular, Chrome incorporates a new JavaScript engine called V8, which was designed for high performance; it also does a considerably better job of following Web standards than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer does, especially in IE’s older versions.  Google makes its money by selling advertising, so it has an obvious interest in getting more people to spend more time surfing the Web.

Google has recently upped the ante by announcing the introduction of a browser “plug-in” for Internet Explorer, called Chrome Frame, that it hopes can give users a more up-to=date browsing capability:

A number of modern Web features cannot be used pervasively on the Internet because Microsoft’s dominant browser, Internet Explorer, often fails to support current and emerging standards. Google has a plan to drag IE into the world of modern browsing by building a plugin that will allow it to use Chrome’s HTML renderer and high-performance JavaScript engine.

In essence, the plug-in replaces most of the user-visible parts of Internet Explorer with corresponding pieces of Chrome.  One motivation is to allow organizations who cannot quickly change to a non-Microsoft browser, because of legacy applications that depend on Internet Explorer’s “features”, to have access to more modern Web functionality.   The plug-in, like Chrome itself, will be open source, so users have the opportunity to do their own tweaking.

Google is opening the source code now to get feedback and assistance with testing. The plugin will include Google’s speedy V8 JavaScript engine, support for Canvas, SVG, and all of the other features that users enjoy today in Chrome.

The set-up of Frame allows a Web page designer to add a tag to the page’s HTML to indicate that it can take advantage of new features that Frame provides.  The user can also specify that Frame be used to render a particular page, instead of the normal Internet Explorer rendering code.  Potentially, the Chrome plug-in could be something of a Trojan horse to help Google get more ensconced on the Windows desktop.

Microsoft countered the Google announcement more or less immediate;ly by issuing a statement that using the Chrome plug-in might make Internet Explorer less secure.  Considering IE’s security record, this might seem to some of us like carrying coal to Newcastle.  It is true that plug-ins can be problematic from a security perspective, not least because there is often not an effective means of ensuring that users apply security updates when they are released. But Microsoft cited no specific issues; I doubt that was because they just forgot.

A preliminary set of performance tests with the Chrome Frame plug-in has been carried out by the ComputerWorld / TechWorld publications.  As with the Chrome browser itself, the increase in performance with JavaScript was quite impressive:

According to tests run by Computerworld , Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) was 9.6 times faster than IE8 on its own. Computerworld ran the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark suite three times each for IE8 with Chrome Frame, and IE8 without the plug-in, then averaged the scores.

Of course, performance isn’t everything. But JavaScript is becoming more heavily used all the time to add features to Web sites; some sites, like Facebook or, effectively could not function without it.  In any case, having more competition in the Web browser market is good news for consumers.

The Chrome Frame plug-in will work with Internet Explorer versions 6, 7, and 8, running under Windows XP or Vista.  The currently available version is intended for testing and development, and is not recommended for sensitive or production applications.  You can find more information and downloads here.

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