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August 31, 2011

Chrome's Most Important Feature

Ben Goodger, a former Mozilla developer who now works at Google on the Chrome team, thinks that autoupdate is one of the most important Chrome features.
Autoupdate is one of Chrome's killer features. It is magical because it continuously updates an entire development platform invisibly, frequently. Supporting it has driven how we structure our development processes. It was also one of Chrome's first features. Delving back into project history long before we launched publicly in 2008, the autoupdate project was one of the very first we started working on. The idea was to give people a blank window with an autoupdater. If they installed that, over time the blank window would grow into a browser. And today, some five years after our autoupdater started updating a mostly blank window that could barely load webpages, it is now an engine for delivering an incredibly sophisticated web technology platform onto our users' computers, which in turn allows web app developers to build amazing new online experiences. I have never seen such an effective platform update mechanism before.

Chrome automatically updates in the background and makes sure that it always has the latest features and bug fixes. You don't longer have to worry about version numbers, the list of features from the latest release and you can no longer decide that it's a bad idea to upgrade to the new version because of an annoying change. Extensions also update in the background and you're always using the most recent versions. That's a great thing for developers, who don't have to support legacy Chrome versions and spend so much time testing their sites and extensions. It's also a great thing for users, who can rely on a secure browser that has the latest security fixes and it's better protected against malware. They can also use the latest Web apps without having to worry about updating their browser.

Chrome's rapid release cycle works well because of the autoupdater. Annoying users with notifications about the new releases makes people delay updating their browser. Some of them will find ways to disable the updater and will continue to use an old version of the browser. Ben Goodger thinks that making the updater invisible is very important:
Chrome's autoupdate system is deceptively simple. I say "deceptively" because as a user it appears completely invisible, but really there are a lot of sophisticated technologies and processes that support it. The key point here is "completely invisible." We have made numerous improvements to the autoupdater over the course of Chrome's life, including one major change a while ago when we sped up the frequency of our releases from once per quarter to one every six weeks. But from a user perspective Chrome is still well.. Chrome.

I'll expand on invisible, because it's important:

The Chrome autoupdater works quietly in the background, never notifying you. If there's an update, it'll download it and prepare it so that the next time you start the browser it's the latest version. Sort of like how the next time you load GMail it's the latest version.

I think the autoupdater is the most important Chrome feature because it's the enabler for the other features. Ever since it was released back in 2008, Chrome has constantly improved, supporting new Web technologies, adding new features to the interface, new APIs for extensions and cutting-edge security features. Without a powerful autoupdater, many Chrome users would still have an outdated version and wouldn't be able to use them. Sometimes, removing choice can dramatically improve a software.

{ via Fran├žois }


  1. True words. I still remember the time when Chrome had just launched. I could not locate the reload page option in context menu. Just after a couple of hours, and probably a reboot later, it appeared magically. Something similar happened with Spell Check. I had no idea Chrome was auto-updating in the backend. And when I realized it, it was pretty awesome.

  2. the auto updater is not working properly in latest dev versions

    it always shows the version i have is updated when a newere versio is available

  3. Great article. I've been using Chrome for a while now, and I love it. It's easier to use and much faster that IE. But, lately I've been having trouble. Sometimes YouTube videos that are embedded in blog are unplayable. I get a message saying that I need the latest Flash to play them. Chrome says that it is updated and has the latest Flash. Also, sometimes while commenting on blogs Chrome cannot display the catchpha that some people use.

  4. Yes indeed. And having lastest flash version is also a major reason why I install chrome on every user!

  5. No doubt, it's the same reason why I love Google Docs and most of what Google does (apart from being free or absurdly cheap).

    Every week, or at least every month, there's some significant new feature: instant pages, better uploads, streaming video, speech input for translation, etc etc etc. Often they don't even make a blog post about it, you just go to the application and notice, hey! The media player in Gdocs is much more polished. Hey! Now you can upload 10GB videos so pretty much every movie you own can be stored online and streamed from everywhere.

    It's the kind of quiet hard work that goes on to keep users happy and that is driving Chrome growth. The downside is that so many people still don't know about it, because Google doesn't make a fuss about it - almost nobody knows the stuff about streaming video in Google Docs, for example, and how cheap storage is.

    Btw, when I hear somebody saying that "you put Chrome in the Transformer/Galaxy Tab/whatever and you have Chrome OS", I want to cry. I love Android but it's insanely complex to manage/use, and the updates are a nightmare. There are app updates that leave an application unusable for days on end, system updates that brick the whole handset, and major upgrades to the OS that just cannot be performed for current handsets. And of course there are different versions of Android and each of them has its own upgrades.

    Which couldn't be a starker contrast to Chrome's simplicity and effectiveness: everybody has the best and latest version. And that's it!

  6. Poor windows users, you think it's magic when a piece of software updates itself without you pressing next-next-finish!

    I just type

    apt-get update && apt-get dist-upgrade

    and everything is new and shiny :P

  7. Continuous updates are nice from a usability perspective, but it seems likely that there are two real dangers:

    1) Targeted updates -- that google could be forced (as by National Security Letter) to deliver surveillance-focused updates to specified targets.

    2) Widespread use -- if google's update channel is ever subverted by a determined attacker, hundreds of millions of machines will be at risk.

  8. I'm not really sure why autoupdate is not the default option for all browsers. I suppose the two downsides mentioned by ipsin could be a reason. Yet, there are always risks using computer software. As long as there is an opt-out then auto update should be the default.

  9. A side-effect of the autoupdater is that a friend of mine thought IE9 must be better than Chrome, since Chrome came out in 2008 and IE9 is new

  10. The reason I dumped Firefox was that it seemed like every single time I launched it there was one or more updates to some extension or the browser itself. LEAVE ME ALONE! Thanks Chrome!

  11. I agree, this is the most important feature - because every other feature of Chrome isn't as good as Firefox.

  12. Yeah with every update chrome refreshes all open tabs, so all paused youtube videos and ads with audio and everything starts playing. Annoying

  13. The frequency of updating is annoying, as is the fact that there's no way the user can choose to change Chrome settings. Sometimes the user does know better than big brother Google.

  14. Autoupdates is the main and only reason I uninstalled otherwise great browser.