Google's Chrome browser is proving increasingly popular, while work continues on the Chrome OS project to build a minimal, browser-based interface for netbooks. Lifehacker spoke with Chrome user interface design team developer Glen Murphy — an Aussie now working at Google HQ in California — to discuss the future directions Chrome and Chrome OS will take, why the Chrome Web Store is so important, and the relative important of touch screens and keyboard shortcuts.
The big Chrome news from last week's Google I/O conference was the unveiling of the Chrome Web Store. Has that been on the cards for some time, and what challenges does it pose from an operating systems design point of view? It's something we've thought about from the very beginning. The web store and application discovery was a really huge part of it from the start. We launched the applications stuff and stepped away from the store, but now we're focusing on it, and the store is the final part of that.
The biggest challenge that we faced is the security aspect of it — making sure you don't install a dodgy app. It's the same issue with extensions. It's entirely possible to write an extension that does something bad to your data, and it's a big challenge to communicate that with users without being intrusive.
The second part is trying to differentiate applications from the regular pages people use in the browser. There should be some minor differences, but it's hard to define the difference between a web page and a web application. What it comes down to is how the user thinks about it. With the app store and the whole infrastructure we're building, we're building a way to go with the tabs. Hopefully, the users will develop a sense for it.
What are the most important user interface principles being applied across the Chrome project? The principle that we've stuck to from pretty early on was content, not Chrome: allowing Web applications to live front and centre. Users don't care about their computer. They shouldn't have to. Cutting Chrome back to absolutely nothing is our biggest challenge, and it's our biggest teacher. It is moving towards this simpler, high -performance approach.
How hard is it to create a functional OS environment while using the browser as the main metaphor? It's very hard. We've spent a very long time on things like language selection and network detection. You need to be able to get onto a wireless network and choose your language, especially since a huge number of Chrome users don't speak English. But that flies in the face of keeping it simple.
Chrome appears to deliberately de-emphasise keyboard shortcuts in the interface, in that they often work but they aren't always indicated on screen; was that a deliberate decision? We want to avoid clutter, but that said, we spent a lot of time and effort to at least keep keyboard shortcut parity. Chrome was developed at Google and tested at Google and everyone there is a keyboard shortcut nut. And there are some other things that we do want to do. People who use the mouse frequently should be educated on other options. So if we notice you're clicking refresh a lot, we should call out that there's a faster way to do that, but without being intrusive. We discuss this kind of thing a lot.
How much attention are you giving to the role of touch as an interface for Chrome OS? We care about it a lot. As geeks and nerds, we're super-excited by touch. But the thing is that touch still isn't great on desktop computers. It's OK on laptops, but the form factor is not quite there yet. Looking at Chrome on a tablet, and we do a lot of exploration there. Chrome on a pure touch device is going to look a little different. Reaching for the top of the screen where your tabs are is a pain, for instance, so tabs have moved around a bit.
What are the main technologies you use to organise your working life? I go through plateaus of productivity. I love trying out new mechanisms to do this, and I even wrote a To-Do list app a very long time ago. But after about a month or so with a given to-do list system, I stop using it, and generally get unproductive until a new one comes along. I think my brain shuts off. There's something really exciting about a new to-do approach, and the first few weeks of using it I'm all excited, and then the excitement drops off.
In Google, everyone does it differently. A lot of people still just use pen and paper. Some people don't use anything and get an enormous amount of work done!
What are the next steps for Chrome? One of the key things we're doing is unifying the experience of all Chrome users. With Chrome OS and Chrome you should be able to walk up to any machine with Chrome on it and have the same experience everywhere. Getting that right is actually a tricky problem. It's great that we obey the native platform styles, but there's something nice about not caring about the OS underneath. But having a theme work across different platforms is a challenge. Is a theme that looks good on Windows going to look on the Mac? These are the things we think about.