Switching to Chrom(ium)
For someone who works with, writes about and teaches cutting-edge technologies, I tend to be a bit of a laggard when adopting new ones. I upgrade my laptop and servers very conservatively. I got my first smartphone just earlier this year. I still use the Apache HTTP server, even though I know that nginx is a bit faster. And until recently, Mozilla's Firefox was my default browser.
Firefox is a remarkable piece of software, and it has been a massive success by any measure. It was around before and during Netscape's IPO, which marked the start of the IPO-crazy dot-com era. I then watched as it declined as a company, turning its flagship product (Firefox) into an open-source project before disappearing.
I used Firefox from its first pre-release versions and have been a loyal user ever since. This was not only because Firefox generally adhered to and promoted standards, but also because of the wide variety of plugins and extensions available for it. As a Web developer, I found that a combination of plugins—from Firebug to the aptly named Web developer to Tamper Data—gave me enormous power and flexibility when developing, debugging and working on Web applications.
During the past year, I've discovered that a very large number of non-techies have switched browsers. But, they haven't been switching to Firefox. Rather, they've been switching to Chrome, a relatively new browser whose development is sponsored by Google. I've certainly used Chrome through the years, and I've generally been impressed by its abilities. But for a long time, some combination of nostalgia and comfort with Firefox's tools kept me from switching.
I should make it clear before I continue that Chrome is not an open-source product. It is free-as-in-beer, but it isn't released under an open-source license. That said, there are several reasons why open-source advocates should take a look at Chrome. First, it is rapidly growing in popularity, with many developers and users alike adopting it. Just as my clients expect that I'll test Web applications against IE, they now expect that I'll test applications against Chrome. If you aren't including Chrome in your testing, you might be missing some issues in your site's design or functionality.
A second reason to look at Chrome is that although you might prefer open-source solutions, there are (as you know) many commercial solutions for Linux, and some of them are even of high quality. Ignoring these products doesn't make them go away, and it even can do a disservice to people who are more interested in having a computer "that just works" than one that is fully open source.
Given my increasing misgivings about the amount of personal data that Google is collecting, I certainly can understand why someone would prefer Chromium to Chrome, or prefer to use a browser (such as Firefox) sponsored by a nonprofit, rather than a commercial company. That said, Google has used Chrome (among other things) to promote modern Web standards, which is good for all developers, regardless of what browser they use.
Installing and Using Chrome
Google Chrome isn't a new browser, even though I only recently switched to using it on a full-time basis. It first was released in 2008, and since then, it has been available on Windows, Macintosh and Linux systems, generally at the same time. Firefox users recently were surprised to find that their version numbers jumped significantly, and that new versions were being released on a rapid schedule. This happened in no small part thanks to Chrome, which is updated automatically on a regular basis by Google. These regular updates come with new version numbers, meaning that although Chrome has been out only for several years, version numbers already are in the 20s, with new versions pushed out every six weeks or so.
There are actually three different versions of Chrome: the standard production release is what the general public uses and is meant for non-developers. A "dev" release is for developers, and it has more functionality and features, at the price of being slightly less stable.
Another version of Chrome, namely Chrome Canary, includes a huge number of new features, but it isn't at all guaranteed to be stable. That said, when working on my Mac, I find that Chrome Canary certainly is stable enough for day-to-day use. It's unfortunate that Chrome Canary isn't yet available for Linux. Given the large number of Web developers using Linux, I would have expected Google to provide such a version, and hope it does so in the near future.
On the user interface front, it's true that Chrome is slightly cleaner than Firefox, with a window that appears to contain only tabs, and with tabs that can be moved from one window to another. Again, that's now the norm among Web browsers, and no one would use a browser that did anything differently.
A second reason to switch is, sadly, site compatibility. In Israel, for reasons that drive me mad, there still are some sites—including government and bank sites—that give preference to IE and that refuse to work with Firefox. When I call their support lines and ask for help with Firefox, I'm told that the site won't ever work with it. But Chrome is popular enough that they are (usually) willing to consider making it work better, or to adhere to standards.
Finally, as I mentioned above, the developer tools in Chrome are already excellent, and they are getting better with each release. Firebug continues to be a great tool, but I increasingly have found that Chrome does everything Firebug does, and often better and more intuitively.
If you just want to install Chromium, the open-source version of
Chrome, you can do so with apt-get on Debian/Ubuntu or with yum
on RPM-based machines. You also can download the source and compile
it (although I haven't done so) from http://chromium.org. If you are
comfortable with the proprietary version of Chrome, you can go to
http://google.com/chrome, and download an appropriate .deb or .rpm
file that will let you install Chrome on your machine. In the case of
Chrome itself, you can choose from the stable or development branches,
but you will need to install updates yourself manually. By
contrast, because Chromium is an open-source project, it can be
included in the standard Linux distribution channels and will be
updated every time you do an
Chrome (as opposed to Chromium) tries hard to get you to sign in with your Google account—the same one you would use with Gmail, Google Calendar and every other Google service. The good news with signing in with Google is that Chrome synchronizes your bookmarks and other settings across every copy of Chrome you're running. The bad news is that not everyone wants Google to have access to such information, of course.
Reuven M. Lerner, Linux Journal Senior Columnist, a longtime Web developer, consultant and trainer, is completing his PhD in learning sciences at Northwestern University.
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