After a year and a half, Chrome has come a long way toward matching the features of better-established browsers. Now, with version 5 coming together, a lot of Google's work focuses on advancing the state of the browser art.
The new Chrome 5 is available in beta now for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux, not that most Chrome users will ever have to know the version number if Google has anything to do with it. Chrome versions are called "milestones"--fleeting waypoints along an unfinished journey to a better browser. But what exactly will moving into the rear-view mirror once Chrome 5 is finished?
In short, a lot. Chrome fans may be dissatisfied with the speed with which their favorite features are arriving--print preview, for example, still seems distant, and Mac OS X and Linux users still have only a beta version of the browser to work with--but Google's pace of Chrome development is fast. Here are some highlights of what's coming in Chrome 5.
First up, Chrome will get geolocation, one of the better-settled elements of HTML5, the revised Hypertext Markup Language standard for Web page still under development. Geolocation lets the browser, if given the user's permission, inform a Web site of the user's location. That feature is handy for placing people on a map, finding nearby services or contacts, adjusting features on a Web site that may vary geographically, and simply telling a global Web site what the best server is for the user.
Actually obtaining the location is tricky. There are broad clues based on a user's Internet Protocol (IP) address, but Google (along with rival Skyhook) supplements this data with signals from radio signals from wireless networks and mobile phone networks. And, of course, some devices, mostly mobile phones, have GPS support.
Windows 7 features
Next on the list is support for a Windows 7 feature called Aero Peek, which pops up thumbnail images of open browser tabs when the user hovers the mouse pointer over the Chrome icon in the task bar. Internet Explorer supports this technology, unsurprisingly.
However, as Aero Peek support arrived in Chrome developer preview editions, the tenor of comments on the issue tracker has changed from "Hurry up! Other browsers have this!" to "Make the pain stop! Give us an off switch!" That's because many people have dozens of tabs open at once, at which point the feature can be messy and unhelpful. Chrome Aero Peek adjustments are under way.
Another Windows 7 feature, Jump Lists that provide a menu of actions people can take when clicking on the Chrome menu item, also comes with Chrome 5.
It took Google longer than expected to build the major feature of Chrome 4, the ability to accommodate extensions that let others customize the browser's features. The integration was tough enough that a Mac version of the technology never made it out in a 4.x beta version. With Chrome 5, all three operating systems Google supports get extensions.
And extensions will change in Chrome 5. With some new browser interfaces, programmers will be able to expand what extensions can do. For example, history API will grant an extension access to a user's browsing history record; several others are possibilities but not slated for Chrome 5.
One feature Windows users got with a Chrome 4.1 version that never arrived for Mac and Linux users is an auto-translate pop-up that appears when Google detects a page written in a different language. Chrome 5 brings that to Mac and Linux.
These days, people often use browsers from more than one computer and on mobile phones. To help smooth the experience, Chrome 5 is getting wider synchronization abilities beyond the bookmark sync that arrived in Chrome 4.
Coming in Chrome 5 should be sync for themes, autofill entries, and passwords. However, apparently pushed back to Milestone 6 is even more sync: extensions, open tabs, and Web addresses that have been typed into the browser.
For those who hate filling out forms, Chrome 5 gets an autofill feature that can remember names, addresses, phone numbers, and other personal details that often must be typed over and over again. That could placate people who like the feature in Google Toolbar, which doesn't work in Chrome.
Specifically, Chrome includes the next beta version of Flash Player, 10.1, which is due to be completed this quarter. And as with Chrome overall, Google will by default automatically update it without the user taking any action. That could be helpful given recent severe vulnerabilities in Flash, though some object to the idea of invisible updates. Google sees Chrome like Web sites, though: something that's constantly changed; people don't get a choice when they upgrade to the latest Google search algorithm.
And apparently, it's not just Flash. PDF support also is arriving as an internal plug-in that ships with the browser, the unofficial Google Operating System blog discovered.
Google is working on other programming foundations, too. It's a supporter of the draft WebGL standard started by Mozilla and the Khronos Group, the latter the standards group that oversees the OpenGL graphics interface on which WebGL is based. WebGL permits sophisticated, low-level, hardware-acclerated 3D graphics from a Web application, a feature some hope will lead to elaborate interfaces and better online gaming.
Chrome 4 had a version of WebGL built in, but to use it, people had to disable a security feature called the sandbox that confines computing processes to keep them from running amok. Chrome 5, though, will likely get WebGL support within the sandbox, making it practical for people to try.
Don't expect whirling cubes and first-person shooters in a couple months, though. Even though OpenGL is familiar to many programmers, it's an unknown quantity to many Web programmers.
Another programming change is support for Native Client, Google technology to boost browser-based applications with security-scrubbed software modules that can run at the speed enjoyed by native software on a computer's ordinary operating system. Native Client support is a priority for Chrome 5 and works for 32-bit software running on Mac, Linux, and Windows computers. However, some 64-bit support is tripped up by an issue for 64-bit Windows that didn't get done in time for Chrome's milestone 5.
Users will get some new controls in Chrome as well. Conveniently for Flash haters irked that Flash will be built in, Chrome will have an ability to suppress its use, for example through use of a "chrome://plugins" address.