Google has built its Native Client technology into its newest version of Chrome, endowing the browser with new processing power for running Web applications.
Native Client, or NaCl for short, is an ambitious Google project that, if successful, will help close one gap that separates Web applications from those that run natively on a computer's operating system. That would improve the competitive position of Web applications such as Google Docs compared to Microsoft Office--and thereby boost Google's Chrome OS project in comparison with Windows.
Chrome Version: 184.108.40.206, released Friday, "introduces the Native Client as a built-in feature for the first time on Windows," said Jonathan Conradt, a Google engineering program manager, in a blog post about the release. Previously the software was available only as a browser plug-in.
Google also offers a variety of basic tests and more elaborate examples of what Native Client can do, though it takes a bit of technical configuration to get them working. Among them are spinning ray-traced globes, the Game of Life, and the Quake first-person shooter video game.
Native Client shows how Google is using Chrome as a vehicle to advance its Web programming agenda. While some competitors such as Microsoft have a strong business of software that runs natively on a computer, Google wants software to run on central servers on the Internet.
This cloud computing approach has some advantages--being able to more easily collaborate and share documents for example, or to see and edit documents using any PC or smartphone. Google was born on the Web and has an incumbent's advantage there over rivals, but as an applications foundation, the Web remains slow and primitive compared to native applications in many regards.
Native Client isn't the only effort to change that situation. Google also has a plug-in called O3D--also a project it's building into Chrome--designed to let programs tap into hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. It works at a higher programming level than a related effort from Mozilla and Firefox called WebGL.
Google first released Native Client in December 2008. In June 2009, declaring confidence in NaCl's security model, Google it announced it was bringing Native Client out of research and into production.
Though Native Client is built into the new Chrome version, there are plenty of qualifiers for the release. First, it's only in the developer preview version of Chrome, and only for Windows right now. Second, it's disabled by default; adding "--internal-nacl" as a command-line switch at Chrome launch will activate it, according to an explanatory page.
The new version of Chrome offers a variety of other features too, notably a number updates for extensions to let people customize the browser.
For example, extensions now appear as an option on the wrench menu for browser settings. More obviously from a user-interface perspective, the browser actions interface (see illustration below) is now available to place extensions in the form of a button to Chrome's main toolbar.