Opinion – Google surprised us all yesterday with Google Chrome 1.0 and the suddenly concluded beta phase of the browser. And usually, a “final” version makes certain promises, which we aren’t sure Chrome 1.0 can keep. Our conclusion: Just because Google says Chrome now deserves the “1.0” label and is now final, does not mean that Chrome is final. In fact, we would hope that Google would update its browser right away again and put it “back” into 1.5 beta.
We recently began highlighting unusual behavior of companies with a “shoot yourself in the foot” column. At least once a week, we come across a corporate or product-related decision, which appear to be far enough from common sense that they deserve a special note on TG Daily. We officially kick off our new “ShootFoot” column with Google.
Following the initial excitement that Chrome is now available as a 1.0 version, the “why?” question began popping up in our editorial IM discussions and, strangely enough, we were not able to come up with a reasonable explanation why Google should have taken Chrome out of beta that soon. Well, at least not with an explanation we traditionally associate with the innocent image of Google.
Google's chief of user experience Marissa Mayer told TechCrunch' Michael Arlington at yesterday's Le Web' 08 conference in Paris that Chrome is coming out of beta. Period. No further explanation was provided and the company did not even issued a press release. The only official information is a low-key Google blog post.
It is very unusual for any vendor to move such a young product out of beta after just 100 days of availability. That is especially true for Google, which had no problems with freezing flagship products in beta for years so far. Gmail is five years old and still carries the beta label, as does the three-year old Docs service.
What about Chrome? If we leave aside for a moment that the 1.0 version is virtually identical with the most recent beta version that preceded it, the removal of a beta label typically implies that a product is reliable enough for everyday use and that it is feature complete. Such a message tries to attract users who were previously put off by a beta product, which usually yells “be careful, bugs!” If you think about it, beta always means "work in progress." Also, any product development team typically aims to test a feature-complete version of a product in a beta or at least release candidate phase, before rolling it out as a final. Chrome may be lightning-fast, but, in our opinion, Chrome is not only rough around the edges. It is also far from being feature-complete.
Stable enough for everyday use? Feature complete?
The company's blog post states that audio and video plug-ins are improved, claiming "better performance and stability." The 1.0 Chrome release still has issues with the Flash plug-in and stopped working on several websites we accessed. Yes, there were thirty-something tabs open, but the Flash plug-in should not crash in a 1.0 browser release regardless of the number of open tabs. Simply put, Chrome 1.0 is as stable as the 0.4.154.22 beta was and Google can’t wiggle itself out of this claim.
Google highlights a bookmark manager and more granular privacy controls in a manner that implies changes in the 1.0 version whereas, in fact, they were first rolled out nearly a month ago in a release with version number 0.4.154.22, followed shortly by a bugfix-only release with the version number 0.4.154.22. The latter was the 13th release in a row, followed by yesterday's 1.0 release.
Google may have a different definition of what is feature-complete and not and it may want to keep the browser as streamlined as possible. But Chrome needs more security and privacy options, its minimal user interface and the variety of configuration options could use some improvements. Right now, Chrome seems to appeal to a very specific user group that looks for uncompromised performance, whereas Firefox appeals to a much broader range and provides a much more reasonable compromise between feature set and streamlined browser design. The product itself is clearly not yet competitive enough to play with the big boys.
Chrome is not a final version in a traditional sense. It is just not a good idea to replace a beta label simply with a final label and hope that it magically becomes final as a result.
The only reasons that make sense to us are marketing related. Beta browsers tend to be stuck below the 1% market share level and are not as strongly adopted as “final” browsers. Perhaps Google got tired of being compared to the market shares of Opera and IE8 Beta? From our perspective, the decision to remove the beta label is a sign of desperation and pure marketing move designed to inflate Chrome's market share.
Also, think about Google’s intention to bundle Chrome with PCs. If you were a PC vendor, would you give your customers a beta browser? As a customer, would you like to get beta software on your PC? Of course not.
The bottom line is: End-users do not benefit from Chrome 1.0 compared to Chrome 0.4.154.22 beta in any way. From a marketing perspective, the removal of the beta status will probably drive Chrome's market share, but the gains will be short lived, if there aren’t any substantial updates that do not offer widespread plug-in support and new end-user features in a timely manner.
Delivering the features users want may be the easiest way to drive user numbers up and create a loyal following. Resort to cheap tactics like pushing a beta product into an official 1.0 status out of the blue is a risky attempt to inflate user numbers and may backfire. As a final product, Chrome has lost its beta benefit in browser comparisons and may not fare as well anymore. Even worse, the credibility of final versions delivered by Google may suffer.
I would have no problem with their removal of the beta label at all if a) Chrome 1.0 brought a jump in quality compared to the most recent beta version or b) if Google provided a Chrome roadmap months in advance, as Mozilla does, to let users know which beta release should be considered the final candidate release.
We still believe that Chrome may become a fantastic browser overall. But yesterday’s 1.0 rollout was wrong. Chrome should still be labeled as a beta product. Sure, it is difficult to downgrade it back again to a 0.9 version. But what about an upgrade to 1.5 beta?
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.