Dr. Frankenstein's Browser: The Strangely Obvious Ancestry of Google Chrome

We've posted our first impressions of Google Chrome, and after extended use most of them have held up. Chrome is fast, feature-rich and stable, not to mention highly usable. But Google's in-house innovations (the multi-threaded engine, Javascript handling and task manager, mainly) make up a tiny portion of the user experience. The rest of the interface features, usage mechanics and touted features have clear and very public parentage—in one of Chrome's four largest competitors.

Now, that's not to say that Google has explicitly "stolen" anything from IE, Firefox, Opera or Safari. They have, as of now, acknowledged that they owe a great debt to some of the other large players in the browser market. After all, they're using Safari's WebKit engine, receive billions of revenue-pumping referrals from Firefox's Google search bar, and have open-sourced much of Chrome. For most users, though, these gestures and acknowledgments will go unnoticed, and features previously incorporated into other popular browsers will be seen first on Google's. I've put together a list of some of Chrome's most interesting features, including the mainstream browsers that "inspired" them.

Feature: Incognito Mode
Who already has it: Safari, IE 8, Firefox w/ extension

Google has cleverly named and advertised this feature as a privacy and safety tool, but we know exactly what it's for. Porn Mode, as we've been calling it, is becoming de rigueur for any browser that may be used by men, which is to say, all of them. It made a recent appearance in a new IE 8 beta, but it finds its roots in Safari, circa 2005, when it was called "Private Browsing." Naturally, Chrome's implementation is a bit more complete, with more complex cache and history management, as well as the ability to have normal and "Incognito" windows running at the same time.

Feature: Smart Address Bar
Who already has it: Firefox, IE 8

When Firefox 3 dropped, there was much fanfare around its so-called "Awesome Bar" which, as it turns out, is pretty awesome. Strictly speaking, Chrome's address bar is slightly smarter than Firefox's, but I would argue less useful for power users who often need to dig up specific pages out of piles and piles from the same domain. Google has also modified the concept by merging the search and address bars into one, but most other browsers have included search functionality (by default or with modifiers) in their address bars for years.

Feature: Custom Panel Start Page
Who already has it: Opera, Firefox w/ extension

This feature is perhaps the most controversial, as Opera is a commercial, closed-source browser from which Google looks to have essentially lifted one of its most advertised features. Over a year ago, Opera introduced Speed Dial, which allowed users to build customised, panel-based pages that showed up whenever a tab was created. The large thumbnails provided easy, quick navigation to oft-visited pages and were a refreshing substitute for layers and layers of menus to access favourites. Chrome's home page is dynamically generated, but clearly took conceptual and aesthetic cues from Opera.

Feature: Tab detachment/attachment
Who already has it: Opera and Safari

Chrome, to complement its separate processes for each tab, allows for easy dragging and dropping from one window to another. In other words, you can rip a tab from its parent window to become its own, then drag it back without loss of data. This makes isolating important tabs as well as maintaining single-window mode both much easier, but —you guessed it —neither feature is new. Safari includes a tear-away feature by default, complete with a snazzy animation. Opera can handle tear-aways AND reattachments, in a nearly identical manner as Chrome.

Feature: Resizable Text Boxes
Who already has it: Safari, Firefox w/ Extension

These are fantastic for anyone who creates content, whether it be full-on news stories or the odd racist blog comment. Google's version in Chrome is functionally identical to Safari's earlier version of the feature, which was recently added with version 3.

Feature: Domain Highlighting
Who already has it: IE 8

Seriously. Internet Explorer 8 isn't even out yet and Chrome has managed to crib a feature from it. When the beta was put up for download last week, we noticed that the root domain name was always highlighted, which helps users keep track of what site they're on to avoid phishing attacks with syntactically confusing URLs. Sure enough, this showed up in Chrome a week later, though there's no telling who was working on it first.

Feature: Pseudo Full screen
Where it came from: Safari

Windows browsers have often included "full screen" modes, which hide interface elements to give as much screen space as possible to content. Chrome finds a happy middle ground between everything-goes full screen and normal maximised mode with its partially, uhh, chromeless look. When maximised, the side and bottom window chrome disappears, but the top navigation and tab elements remain. This feature was found as a default first, strangely, in Safari for Windows. Sure, Safari in Windows kinda sucks (balls, and lots of them), but the slick maximised state stood out as an outstanding feature. Chrome is a marginally more attractive browser, so again, their implementation is an improvement.

As I said before, Google has taken time to acknowledge the debt it owes to other browser projects, but that will be little comfort to the Firefox, Opera, Safari and IE teams if Chrome rises to success on their features. Google has taken the best ideas from the best products, given them a new name, some new guts and a PR monsoon. And, no matter how you feel about it, they've done it well.

Google has taken many (though definitely not all) of the most compelling features from disparate sources and united them in a pretty solid package. This all-in-one approach is much like the one that Opera has taken in the past, with some success. Where Chrome trounces its competition, however, is in polish. I don't mean to say that Chrome is without bugs or room for improvement, but the user experience is fast, simple and intuitive from the start. Each of the features culled from other browsers has been refined to be more obvious, easier to use and more effective in Chrome, which—questionable ethical implications aside—is all that really matters to the end user. [Chrome on Giz]

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