SciTech

Paul Gilster: Google Chrome shows danger in piling on new features

One of the most exasperating things about technology is watching a good product gradually spiral into something else under the pressure of continual “upgrades.” Coming out with new versions of successful hardware and programs is mandated by the market’s continual yen for change. But change can go too far, and sometimes it introduces unfortunate consequences.

I give you Google Chrome. For years it’s been my favorite Web browser, largely because I use Google Docs for my writing. The integration of Chrome with the many other Google services I use made it a natural, and a wide range of extensions were available that I had come to rely on, including Diigo for Web annotation, the Evernote extension for notes, and a Google Translate plug-in that allowed me to highlight any part of a Web page for a quick rendering into English.

Hogging resources

Chrome also wowed me when it first appeared because it was fast as a colt. I’m not surprised at how many people quickly began using it. A quick check online tells me that Chrome now has almost 64 percent of the browser market, while Firefox weighs in at 21.6 percent and Internet Explorer (about which more in a moment) a mere 8. I don’t want to neglect Safari, because I’ve had to start using it on my MacBook Air. It’s got 4 percent of the market.

The reason I started using Safari on my laptop was that Chrome burns up so much battery life. Online site The Verge just reported that in its tests, a MacBook got three and a half hours less battery endurance when running Chrome than Safari. That’s a startling result, and one that began to make what had been happening to me in Linux and Windows that much clearer.

When I run Linux, I work all day out of Chrome. Most of my work involves multiple websites, so that I will usually have anywhere from ten to twenty tabs open, and sometimes more. Lately I’ve been finding that I’ll be midway through a day’s work when suddenly the browser will simply freeze up. I can’t click to change tabs and I can’t scroll the one I have open.

Time to rethink

Because I run a dual-boot system, I tried moving into Windows 7 for an extended period. There the problem turned out to be even worse. My workday would be slowed as the browser seemed to max out my PC’s memory. Some queries online revealed that this was happening to others, and it was clearly associated with Chrome. A check of the task manager then showed me how many processes were always active with this resource-hogging browser.

What happened to my once fleet window on the Web? Stripping all the extensions out of Chrome didn’t resolve the problem and I gave up. I retreated to Firefox and upgraded to the latest version. I can’t say I like Firefox as much as Chrome except in this one critical regard: It does not slow my system to a crawl or cause me to reboot twice daily. In the weeks since I’ve made the switch, I have acceptable performance, and I’m opening up as many tabs in Firefox as I ever did in Chrome. Simply put, I can work in Firefox. I can’t work reliably in Chrome.

If there’s a moral here, it’s that companies have to avoid the temptation to keep piling on new features. Sure, staying competitive requires a keen eye for the improvements that can be made, but when they destroy the underlying integrity of the product, it’s time to rethink. I notice that Microsoft is bringing a new browser out when it releases Windows 10, one virtue of which is said to be its streamlined interface. If it has performance to match, I’ll be all over it. Better respond to Microsoft’s moves, Google. The Chrome franchise is in jeopardy.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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