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How we designed Chrome 10 years ago

September 10th, 2018

NOTE: This article was inspired by a conversation with Darin Fisher, VP for Google Chrome, for our YouTube series “Designer vs. Developer”.

To release a browser when there were already established ones in the market was a bold move—especially when some of the major browsers were clocking over a million downloads within just hours of their release.

The community speculated about a Google browser as early as 2004, but the team actually started working on the project in 2006. With the rise in rich web applications such as Gmail, YouTube, and Google Maps, the demand for more powerful browsers became apparent. These new web apps were processor-intensive and the browsers weren’t designed to handle that level of complexity.

“In your typical browser of that day, if you were to leave Gmail running overnight, you would come back the next day and your browser would feel pretty sluggish.” – Darin Fisher, VP Chrome

Browsers of that time mimicked what early search engines had done, diluting the focus on the core user experience. Search engines were mostly portal sites with a sea of links and a tiny input field. Google Search stripped away the clutter, offering the user a single input field, and focused on a single task.

Web browsers had created a similar problem with excessive toolbars. Whenever users installed a new app, they were offered an extra toolbar. Eventually, the browser UI dominated the user's screen real estate and left very little space for content. Chrome wanted to do what Google did with search: focus on content. The team wanted to get out of the user’s way and include features that weren’t possible before, such as draggable tabs. Even the extension system was built to ensure that the screen space for content wasn’t compromised and that the surrounding UI was minimized as much as possible.

The mantra for Chrome was the four S’s: simplicity, speed, security, and stability.

Simplicity represented the streamlined UI design and experience. Speed was about how quickly the browser responded when a user performed an action. Speed wasn’t just about load time, either. Before Chrome, browsers would often hang or fail to respond when a user tried to close a tab, had too many tabs open, or was doing something complicated on a page. Chrome worked on a multiprocessor architecture, so if the user clicked to close a tab, it would simply close.

Security was about making users feel safe on the web, protecting them from any nasties on the internet such as viruses or fake sites, and giving them control over what was happening. This tied into the final S -- Stability of the browser, ensuring that it wouldn’t randomly crash. The team put a lot of effort in making sure it supported the many quirks on the web and rendered pages in a way that web developers intended.

I asked Darin about the things he is proud of and the decisions he regretted. He mentioned the liberation of starting with the Windows version, which meant his teams could focus on building a great browser without thinking about any cross-platform issues. While it maintained the free-spirit of development for the team, to their peril, they had to recreate everything from scratch when building for mobile, MacOS and Linux - a painful but critical learning of ‘thinking long-term’ for him and the team.

The other challenge I asked him about was the dreaded “best viewed in browser X” banner message that was common in the early 2000s, indicating that site content might not show properly on some browsers (including Chrome). Today, Chrome is working with other browsers vendors, the W3C committee, and especially developers, to make sure we’re solving the right problems for the community, such as the cross-collaboration work we did when implementing CSS Grid.

What do the next ten years hold? As new computers, mobile devices, and users come online, the most likely effect will be that design patterns and trends from Asia and Africa become the standard way of experiencing digital design. Web makers in India have pioneered offline experiences, and app designers in Nigeria are developing new ways of delivering Ecommerce experiences to users on 2G networks.

So, here’s to the next ten years. Happy birthday, Chrome!

Posted by Mustafa Kurtuldu, Design Advocate