The Chrome browser, as well as the Chrome OS interface, could see some big changes in the near future. Google's Jeff Chang told Chrome developers that "there are a number of UI/front end efforts under way." He intends to provide weekly summaries about the progress of the work, as deemed "fit for public consumption."
The last dramatic change of the Chrome browser UI came with Chrome 6 back in July 2010, when Google nixed the "Stop" and "Go" buttons and when it merged the "Page" and "Tools" menus. Back then, I'd already called Chrome the "naked browser" as it set the trend in reduced user interfaces, which aim to increase the viewable space for Web and application content. Chrome led the pace, but it is IE9 that has the most efficient UI at this time, in terms of available pixels to Web content.
New navigation models
Google is working toward an improved Chrome UI that could be even more radical and eliminate the URL bar altogether. According to the Chrome UI variants page, Google is currently thinking about four different layouts, with four different types of navigation: The classic navigation version, compact navigation, sidetab navigation, and a touchscreen version. Google said that it is "interested" in developing all four versions but that current builds of Chrome "are focused on classic and compact navigation styles."
It is somewhat surprising that Google is not pursuing the sidetab navigation version, which has been supported for several months with a flags option in Chrome. The company said that this layout would waste space for users who do not use many tabs, that it works nicely only on screen layouts that are 1,366 pixels wide, and that the layout does not relate well to the browser overall.
The most dramatic modification is something Google calls a "compact navigation" model. The idea is to eliminate the two-line navigation layout, which currently has tabs on top and the navigation buttons, menu, and URL bar below. The compact navigation model would have only one line and place the navigation buttons, a search button, tabs, and menus next to each other. The URL bar is gone, and the URL of each tab is not visible at all times, but displayed only when a page is loading and when a tab is selected. In effect, there are now multiple URL bars that are integrated into tabs.
Google noted that this layout has the advantage that it saves content-area real estate, that search can be used as a "launcher and switcher," that it can be applied in a flexible way on larger screens and possibly be switched with a classical navigation layout, and that apps can provide a better user experience "with full control of their content area." As downsides, Google mentions that the URLs are not always visible, that navigation controls and menus are not located within the tab and lose context sensitivity, and that the tab strip is rather crowded. There is a note that these layouts aren't final and that the designs may change, but it appears that Google is trying to find ways to reduce the browser interface even more.
Judging by the layout mockups, it appears that Google will soon be introducing an option that will allow users to open multiple Chrome windows and apply different users to them. For example, if you use multiple Google accounts, you have to sign out and in between different accounts. With multiple profile support, you will be able to be signed into different accounts in parallel and use them at the same time -- in different browser windows.
The mockups suggest that future Chrome windows will show the Google account name not just in the window when you are on a Google page, but also in the browser window itself, next to the window control buttons for "minimize," "maximize," and "close."
The feature will be enabled in a new "Profile" section in the "Personal Stuff" tab of the browser options, where users can set up different user profiles by default. What makes this feature interesting is that it is tied to "Sync" as well and will load bookmarks, passwords, and autofill options all tied to a specific account. Each profile has its own incognito mode. If a user closes all Chrome windows and the reopens a window, then the window will assume the identity of the most recently closed window. If a user closes three windows with three different identities and then reopens three windows, the windows would assume the identity of the three identities again, Google said. Tabs are restricted to be run in windows of the same identity and cannot move between browser windows with different identities.
For the classic navigation model, Google is looking at some improvements that look much closer at a user's browsing history to provide relevant URL entries when the user types letter in the URL bar. Based on the first letters that are entered in the URL bar, Chrome will provide suggestions that are pulled from a user's browsing history in a similar way as Google Instant works. "At this time, only the URL of the historically visited page is indexed and searched," Google said. "Page title indexing and searching will be added soon."
The goals are to provide user results within 20 milliseconds of typing a character and offer the 10 best matches for the terms the user typed. Only URLs that a user has typed at least twice will be considered as a suggestion -- or URLs that have been visited at least four times, or URLs that have been visited within the past 72 hours of typing.
There has been no information on when these new features will find their way into Chrome.
Last week, Mozilla gave us a first view at the Firefox 5 interface, which will enable tabbed Web apps in what appears a huge shift in browser interfaces as well.
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