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Google Chrome 4 goes live with extensions: How much closer to Firefox now?

By Scott M. Fulton, III, Betanews

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After a few months’ development time, supporters of Google’s Chrome browser — based on the open source Chromium platform — have had only a narrow window to produce a full library of extensions and add-ons for the grand opening of Chrome’s new gallery. That apparently didn’t weigh too heavily on developers’ minds, as yesterday’s ribbon cutting on the first stable Chrome 4 release featured a very well-stocked gallery.

As I’ve stated here before, it’s Mozilla Firefox’s adaptability that gives users who work on the Web — as opposed to just browsing — the functionality they need to do their jobs. In the absence of a “professional” Web browser that caters to those of us who make the Web their virtual offices, not only Firefox’s extensions but its extensibility — as a JavaScript interpreter that runs on JavaScript itself — enables others to fill in the functionality gaps. That fact may be the only thing that binds me to Firefox, since the underlying chassis of Chrome has proven itself in my tests to not only be faster but more stable.

Up to now, it’s Chrome’s lack of extensibility that denies it a place on the online workbench. That may begin to change now that Chrome’s extensions emerge beyond the beta phase. Officially, Microsoft Internet Explorer has add-ons as well, but IE hasn’t garnered nearly the same degree of support and enthusiasm in the community as Firefox. If the early going for Chrome is any indication, Google is applying the lessons it’s learned from Android, and is well on its way to achieving at least par with Firefox in the extensibility category.

Browser extensions as “apps”

With Chrome, unlike Firefox, an extension is like an “app” on a handset. It has an icon and an assigned place on Chrome’s main bar, to the right of the address box — what Google calls the “Omnibox.” That’s Chrome’s single text box, which pulls double-duty as an address box and a search box; if you type something into the Omnibox that doesn’t translate as a Web address, Chrome sends it to Google (or your default search engine of choice) for processing there. Since Chrome is already a blazingly fast browser, there doesn’t appear to be any time lost while a search query defaults over to the search engine.

That said, I’ve never really taken to this double-duty approach, as efficient as it seems on paper. Perhaps I’ve just become accustomed to every function in its own place, and maybe in time, I’d grow out of that habit — I expect other users out there not to be as set in their ways as I am.

Search Box gives Chrome a way for the user to try multiple search engines.So the first add-on I began searching for from Chrome’s new Extensions library is something that could give me an exclusive search box. What I found was a third-party extension that, in the spirit of Google (straightforward with no gimmicks), is called Search Box. It adds a magnifying glass icon to the Chrome toolbar; click on that, and Search Box pulls up a separate search text box, not only for Google but for other general and specific search engines as well, including Bing and Wikipedia.

A more convenient option would be to simply add a permanent, separate search box — at least for me. But that’s not Google’s development model for Chrome: It wants extensions to be single-button icons, located in one row, that do discrete things. At one level, this simplifies things: Even Google itself has chosen to produce single apps, like Translate, on a one-click icon rather than enable a separate toolbar. With a modicum of fiddling around with third-party add-ons in Firefox, you could clutter the entire screen with separate, custom toolbars, hanging along every frame imaginable. Chrome steers developers away from that nightmare with the one-click approach, so even though it ends up adding a click to extensions like Search Box, it does help developers maintain their focus on single tasks.

Chrome also disables the ability for search engine competitors to claim large chunks of real estate in the browser, as all the major ones — Bing, Yahoo,, and most successfully of all, Google itself — have a tendency to do. Quite a bit of freeware downloadable through Fileforum, for example, is supported through the inclusion of Yahoo Toolbar as a default download option; Google chokes off that chain of possible competition in Chrome. Independent developers appear to have come to competitors’ rescue here; for instance, there’s buttons for Yahoo Mail, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and many of the Web’s other major brands.

Breaking free from the one-click model

Already, some of the first Chrome extensions have found a way to make their mark outside of their designated parking spaces in Chrome’s lone toolbar. One of them is a transport (not quite a direct port) from the Firefox world: Called FastestFox (previously known as SmarterFox, no relation to FasterFox), the developer’s first effort at moving this to Chrome not only pre-loads portions of pages from other hyperlinked pages into a separate cache, but it also can augment the content of certain pages, especially Google. For instance, FastestFox adds links just above Google’s search results, containing buttons for continuing your search on other folks’ search engines; and through options, you can control designate which ones.

FasterFox amends Chrome's Google search pages with links to other search engines.

FasterFox amends Chrome’s Google search pages with links to other search engines.

Chrome doesn’t give third-party developers much on-screen real estate to signal their presence, so FastestFox’s approach is not only direct but beneficial. On occasion, when conducting long searches on very technical topics, I’m not always certain Google has the most complete index. More often than not, I’m wrong, but when I’m up late trying to figure out why Exchange 2010 has installed more than one virtual directory for the Autodiscover feature, for instance, and whether other admins out there have the same problem, there are times when I simply need reassurance.

A homemade hyperlink by way of FasterFox.Also, if you highlight any text on any page anywhere, FastestFox will pop up a little “speaking bubble” that lets you search for more information on the highlighted text, from any of the search engines inside the bubble represented with icons.

This is some of the useful stuff that Chrome has been missing — the level of functionality that has made testers wish they could move over to Chrome, “if only.” Right now, there are a few flies in the ointment still (for some reason, you can’t control the search engines that FastestFox adds to your Google page). But throughout an entire day of testing, none of the most-wanted functions we saw actually crashed or presented so much as a cosmetic blemish — the first extensions we’ve played with today are pretty solid, even the ones with version numbers earlier than 1.0.

Next: Overcoming the too-many-tabs problem…

Overcoming the too-many-tabs problem

The problem with having more space is that you eventually run out of it anyway. Opera introduced the world to tabbed browsing, which made sense until we all started running out of tab space. Firefox has add-ons that offer users a few ways to overcome this dilemma — or more accurately, to buy more time until they encounter it again. But not only is Firefox functionally extensible, but structurally as well: add-ons such as Tab Mix Plus can actually replace Mozilla’s design with three rows of tabs, and other add-ons let users stack tabs up vertically.

For now, this ability to rebuild the proverbial airplane while it’s in flight, does not appear to be something Google wants to support with Chrome. So although Chrome 4’s frosted tabs are handsome, in a professional setting, as more and more of them are open, they become too small. Soon your tabs are all entitled M…, A…, R…, and so forth; and the only way to see which one means what, is to fish through them sequentially.

VerticalTabs 2.0 extension for Google Chrome shows full text of tab contents in a menu.Already, there are three approaches to this solution for Chrome that address the overcrowded horizontal tabs in a vertical way. Presented in order from minimalist to stylized: Tab Switch Plus brings up a drop-down menu listing all the open tabs, with full and legible titles. Tab Menu adds the ability to rearrange the tab order in Chrome’s tab bar left-to-right by dragging and dropping them within the drop-down menu top-to-bottom, and also provides a text box for searching for text in open tabs’ title bars. And VerticalTabs 2.0 (pictured right) offers all these features, with a little more graphical polish. (In our tests, perhaps VerticalTabs could be improved by not doling out search text entries as individual letters, so that “Fastest,” for instance, doesn’t match an entry that happens to have an “F,” an “a,” an “e,” two “s’s,” and two “t’s.”)

TooManyTabs extension for Chrome lets you shuffle open tabs into a safekeeping zone for temporary invisibility.

A completely different approach to the tab management problem is offered by a very appropriately named extension, TooManyTabs. Another import from the Firefox world, this provides a graphically rich pop-up menu that depicts all your open tabs almost like school kids being lined up in assigned seats in a classroom. When your class is overflowing, as it were, you can actually take open tabs out of the lineup and stick them in a “Suspended Tabs” bar, almost like sending them to the principal’s office. This makes more space on your tab bar for tabs you’re using at the moment.

It’s a very un-Google-like approach to the problem, especially with its slick background colors that can be instantly changed using a palette in the lower left corner. Obviously, the design was originally intended for users who like to show off their browsers, which typically doesn’t describe the Chrome crowd. However, it’s Chrome that may benefit most from the type of functionality that TooManyTabs provides. It was a little wonky in some of our tests, sometimes freezing up and not responding to clicks. But it didn’t crash, nor take the browser down with it; all we needed to do was click outside the menu to close it, and click the extension button to reopen it. Chrome Showcase is a simpler alternative that shows thumbnails of open tabs in a box, and lets you click one to move it to the front.

The one category of Chrome extension we’ll keep our eyes on more intensely is session management, which I’ve said before Chrome severely lacked. Two in this category worth mentioning thus far is Session Manager, which is both plainly-named and plainly executed, but has received good reviews thus far; and Fresh Start, from the developer of TooManyTabs, which has a little more graphical polish.

The big buildup

The reason this is a category to watch is because session management becomes most useful — as is the case with Firefox — in recovering from crashes, which Firefox does with aplomb. If Chrome doesn’t crash as often as Firefox, the usefulness of session management is reduced more to: 1) re-opening pages you use most frequently, and 2) saving a session before logging off or shutting down your computer normally. So if neither FreshStart nor Session Manager (for Chrome) take off, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.

Thus far, Google has pulled off its first round of extensions for Chrome in its typical, unassuming Google way. Specifically, it’s dumped them onto the public like a boy turning over his box of Legos on the floor, and let users plow through the pieces to find the ones that strike their fancy. You’d think Google, of all companies, would refine the categorization and search experience here. But a search for Search Box in the new Extensions gallery pulled up Search Box only as item #15 in the list, on the second page; only by making the query into “Search Box” (with quotation marks) did it rise to #2. What’s more, user-defined themes are thrown into the mix with extensions, so when you go searching for one, you’re liable to find the other.

What do you mean, Google can't search?  A search for an extension by its own name results in it turning up as #15 in the list.

Mozilla’s add-ons gallery has been developed into an interesting browsing experience; Google’s version, by contrast, looks like a bargain basement blowout sale for socks. One more lesson Google could learn from its Android experience is that community is a feeling, and feelings are something that users have to be given continuously — it’s not something they just sign up for by checking the box on the EULA and clicking on “Install.”

Nevertheless, the official incorporation of add-ons to the stable version of Chrome does make it feasible, for the first time, for many regular users to build their browsers into the functional equivalent of what they use with Firefox. And that’s extremely important, because from the beginning, Chrome has appeared to have the more stable and faster chassis. If there’s still a functionality gap between Chrome and Firefox today, closing it entirely is no longer something that Google has to accomplish alone.

Copyright Betanews, Inc. 2010

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