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Google polishes its Microsoft browser

Chrome Frame – now with more unrequited IE love

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Google has released an official beta version of Chrome Frame, the Internet Explorer plug-in that turns Microsoft's browser into a Google browser.

According to Google, the beta includes more than 200 bug fixes meant to improve security, stability, and performance, and to ensure that – whether Microsoft likes it or not – Chrome Frame squeezes Internet Explorer tighter than ever before.

The Chrome Frame plug-in first hit the web in September as a developer preview, when Mountain View was preparing to expand access to Google Wave, the new-age communication platform that relies heavily on fresh standards like HTML5 and requires rather speedy Javascript and DOM performance. Internet Explorer 8 or earlier versions of the Microsoft browser can't quite handle something like Google Wave, and Chrome Frame is Google's effort to solve this inconvenience.

"Unfortunately, Internet Explorer, still used by the majority of the Web's users, has not kept up with such fairly recent developments in Web technology," Wave founding father Lars Rasmussen and technical lead Adam Schuck said at the time.

"In the past, the Google Wave team has spent countless hours solely on improving the experience of running Google Wave in Internet Explorer. We could continue in this fashion, but using Google Chrome Frame instead lets us invest all that engineering time in more features for all our users, without leaving Internet Explorer users behind."

As you might expect, Microsoft was not happy. "With Internet Explorer 8, we made significant advancements and updates to make the browser safer for our customers," the company told us.

"Given the security issues with plug-ins in general and Google Chrome in particular, Google Chrome Frame running as a plug-in has doubled the attack area for malware and malicious scripts. This is not a risk we would recommend our friends and families take."

This was more FUD than anything else. But a few days later, Mozilla unloaded on Chrome Frame as well, making a few arguments that stood up to scrutiny. Mozilla vp of engineering Mike Shaver pointed out that Chrome Frame sidestepped security tools built into IE, while arguing that the plug-in would muddle the way users think about security in general. If you install Chrome Frame, the individual websites you visit decide when to launch it.

"The user’s understanding of the web’s security model and the behaviour of their browser is seriously hindered by delegating the choice of software to the developers of individual sites they visit," he said. "It is a problem that we have seen repeatedly with other stack-plugins like Flash, Silverlight and Java, and not one that I think we need to see replayed again under the banner of HTML5."

Mozilla boss Mitchell Baker took the argument even further. "If you end up at a website that makes use of the Chrome Frame, the treatment of your passwords, security settings, personalization all the other things one sets in a browser is suddenly unknown," she says. "Will sites you tag or bookmark while browsing with one rendering engine show up in the other? Because the various parts of the browser are no longer connected, actions that have one result in the browser you think you’re using won’t have the same result in the Chrome browser-within-a-browser."

With the new Chrome Frame beta, Google has responded to at least some of this criticism. If you're using Internet Explorer's private browsing mode and the browser switches to Chrome Frame, Google will turn on a similar setting. The new beta also dovetails with IE cache-clearing and cookie-blocking tools.

Meanwhile, the plug-in offers many of the core tools added to Chrome 5, the latest version of Google's browser. This includes HTML5 audio and video, the canvas tag, geolocation, and the web worker API for running background processes.

Outside of Google Wave, other Google services such as Orkut and YouTube have adopted Chrome Frame, as have third-party sites Meebo and WordPress. ®

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