12 September 2009

On Google Chrome's command-line flags

Google Chrome, the new browser that took the computer world by surprise in September 2008, celebrated its one-year anniversary earlier this month. In this relatively short time it has already reached version 4 on the development channel, putting it on par with much older projects like Firefox and Safari. Despite it's revolutionary features and fresh interface, Google's project didn't manage to secure a significant market share; current reports put it at only 2-3% usage worldwide. The recent deal with Sony could change that, by introducing the browser to a broader consumer base.

One of Chrome's weaknesses in the browser competition is the apparent lack of features compared to other more established rivals. And I say "apparent" because Chrome has quite a long list of command-line switches, as I found out from the author of the Google Operating System blog. These flags can activate several interesting features in the browser. Many of them surfaced in various articles on the web, like starting the browser in incognito mode, enabling a bookmark menu, enabling extensions, themes and user scripts, tweaking the way tabs are separated into processes and others.

The problem here for Google Chrome, as I see it, is that the program lacks a centralized interface to manage all these options. It's very hard for a non-technical user to find the right switch, to create a separate shortcut for it and remember to use the shortcut every time he needs that function! If you need more than a couple of features or want to combine some of them, this setup gets ridiculous! For 5 switches, there are 32 possible combinations and the number keeps rising exponentially! Can anyone imagine living with dozens of shortcuts on the desktop just to launch one software with the right set of features enabled? Would you use Microsoft Word if you had to remember which icon to double-click in order to enable the spell-checker or to insert a table of contents? I think it would be easier to go hunting for an alternative...

All other mainstream browsers have some user friendlier way to keep track of hidden settings. Internet Explorer uses the Windows Registry; Firefox has the about:config page that allows the user to edit the preference files in an easier way; Opera also has configuration files like Opera6.ini, that can be accessed through the browser interface in recent versions. Even Safari can be customized through Mac terminal commands or by editing .plist preference files on Windows, even though I was unable to make that work for some reason. The one thing these solutions have in common is that the changes made are saved until the user decides to reverse them, as opposed to Chrome, where using the flags is an one time deal: the next time it starts up, the software reverts to the default settings.

In my opinion, Chrome needs to replace the most common flags with a Firefox-like config-page if it wants to capture the attention of a larger audience and to grow past the 2% "early adopters". Not having features to show off is one thing, but having them and not helping users find them is just bad strategy. I realize that changing the code after three years of development is not trivial and maybe this model has some advantages for developers, but it's certainly not the best solution from a user's point of view. And from the Google Chrome Help forums, I know there is at least one other person that agrees with me.

For now, I remain a solid supporter and frequent user of Chrome, hoping someone with enough influence at Google hears my thoughts and acts upon them.

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