Scrupuli

blunt essays with sharp points

A Thirty Year History of Google Chrome, Plus How To Share Chrome Settings Between PCs

by Scrvpvlvs
Oct 16, 2008 2:47 PM–Google announced Gmail on April 1, 2004, according to the press release. Gmail was followed by other web based applications: word processor, spreadsheet, slide show. These applications have delighted people who use Office, OpenOffice, WordPerfect, or Lotus.

No errors caused by opening a document created with the wrong version of software. No confusing differences in menus, features, or settings between the home computer, the office computer, the laptop.

No schlepping documents around on floppies or discs. No huge e-mail attachments.

No important documents lost to hard drive crashes or stolen laptops. No embarrassing failures to make frequent, time consuming backups.

Just sign in, and the application and the document are ready to work for you—and you can collaborate with anyone else that you give access to. Specialists at the data center keep the system in order, and you get more actual work done.

It comes as a surprise to many people that, thirty years ago, this is how we used computers. You just signed in from wherever you were, and there were your applications and documents, lovingly maintained on the mainframe computer at the data center.

The personal computer devolution.

Around that time, electronics got small and cheap enough that a family or a small business could buy one and make room for it on a desk. By 1980, over a million had been sold worldwide. At the time, we called it the personal computer (PC) revolution. That was when it began to be easy to work at a computer outside a data center.

A computer that didn’t slow down considerably in the afternoon. That you could update yourself when there was an application you needed. That had a printer that was never busy with someone else’s project.

But a cheap PC, with cheap software, that would frequently eat your disk or crash after you had entered an hour’s worth of work or fail to boot after you installed an application.

That wrote disks that another PC would not read. That could call another PC on the phone and transfer a 20 page document from it in about 20 minutes (and maybe fail to open it).

High speed networks bridge the gap.

Thirty years later, PCs have gotten much better, and the network has gotten fast and cheap. The family and the small business have a high speed link from the PC to data centers all over the world. And the new network made it possible to unify the two models of computing.

Enter Google. The Google applications and documentss are stored and kept up to date at the data center, and used from any PC. The application and the document are flash-transfered to and from the PC automatically, over the new high speed network.

The PC, not the mainframe computer, actually powers the application. If the application is underpowered (or when the PC fails, because they all fail—it is only a question of when) you replace the PC without the pain of migrating documents or restoring them from a backup that you made six months ago.

A new browser makes it better.

Finally, enter Chrome, a new browser released by Google in September.

Despite the limitations of the first release, I immediately abandoned Mozilla Firefox for Chrome. Chrome is the next step in the evolution of the PC. Chrome is designed to run network applications differently than other browsers in three ways which I shall call Better, Stronger, and Faster.

Better.

The Chrome developers did not make a more complicated, feature-heavy browser. They made the browser controls simpler and less intrusive than in other browsers. They learned from Firefox and Opera, and added some good ideas of their own.

Stronger.

Mainframe computers were shared by many users running many applications. Barriers had to be erected between applications and between users. These made it impossible for one user to access another user’s private documents. They also made it impossible for one application to crash another application. If an error occurred, it was contained. One bad actor could not bring the whole system down.

These barriers were not originally available on the cheap PCs. It took more than ten years for them to appear. But they did, and PCs crash a lot less. But web browsers have not taken full advantage of this—until Chrome.

Chrome has put these barriers around each browser tab. If an error occurs on a page, it is contained. One bad web based application cannot bring the whole browser down, or interfere with another tab, or access another tab’s private data.

Faster.

By putting barriers around each tab, Chrome also recycles all the memory of a tab when you close it. I can’t tell you how often I have restarted Explorer, or Firefox, or (faugh!) AOL because poor recycling of memory had led to a memory shortage on the PC. I have never had to do this with Chrome.

Chrome even provides a task window that shows the size and activity of each tab and plug-in, so you can see any bad actors and close them.

Problems with Chrome.

Chrome is brand new, and there are still problems to be worked out. There are two problems that plague me in the first release.

One is a software glitch. Applications that rely on plugins such as Java, Flash, Adobe Reader, or Google Gears can still cause the entire browser to come to a halt. I tend to run into this with YouTube, Google Analytics, and National Weather Service radar loops.

Incredibly, the other is that Chrome—the very application that is helping unify the PC with the data center—stores its browser settings, bookmarks, history, and open tabs on each PC instead of at the data center! With Firefox there were add-ons available to do this (Google Browser Sync and then Mozilla Weave) which I sorely miss.

Being a data center kind of guy myself, I could not wait for Google to fix this. I added an application called SyncToy from Microsoft. It keeps my Chrome settings the same at work and at home, including bookmarks, history, and open tabs. It’s very easy to operate, but it took a little work to set it up.

Here’s how I set it up.

Both PCs run Microsoft Windows XP.

I installed WebDrive 8.2 on both PCs. This shareware app lets any other app on the PC see a remote file server as a local hard drive with its own drive letter such as Z:. I gave WebDrive a password to a public FTP file server that I already have an account on. (Before I selected WebDrive, I tried NetDrive and FTPDrive, which are freeware apps. They nearly worked, but they corrupted the files. WebDrive was reliable.)

I installed Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 on both PCs. I did this because SyncToy needs it.

I installed SyncToy 2.0 on both PCs. I gave SyncToy the name of the Chrome user data directory on my PC:

C:\Documents and Settings\Edward\Local Settings\Application Data\Google\Chrome\User Data\Default

I created an empty directory on the Z: drive and gave that to SyncToy to sync with the Default directory. I told SyncToy not to copy the Thumbnails file or the Cache subdirectory, and for my peace of mind I told it to check file contents.

That was all. Now, before I start Chrome and after I stop it, I bring up SyncToy, preview the sync, and run it.

I expect I’ll have to work out a bug or two in this procedure, and then I hope to use SyncToy’s scheduling feature to make the extra steps automatic. If I accomplish that, I’ll post a followup article.

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1 Comments:

by Anonymous Anonymous
October 17, 2008 11:54 AM–I didn't seem to read the word Macintosh anywhere here. Frankly, I think that there are eons of difference between storing applications and data at the data center (an in the facility central computer) and storing it in some unknown facility which is open to any sort of mischief which may come along, as well as bankruptcy, war, or Republican malfeasance. What comes to mind is the old folk song by the Kingston Trio: MTA So when they asked Charlie for one more nickel, he couldn't get off the MTA. In other words, suddenly Google owns my documents and applications. If the price goes up and I either can not or will not pay, I lose my documents. If I have to keep backup copies at home, and an application to use them, what's the advantage? You may have encountered applications that have disappeared and left you with data that is difficult or impossible to retrieve. Apple has done it with photo files, some place in Washington State did the same. I have Apple ][ files that can't be used (although they aren't much missed), a number of business applications we used to use when I started at Giffin are no longer supported by the operating systems now available. Word .docx files are useless unless you have the newest version of Word. And so forth. I have been searching out the old photo files and converting them on an old Mac. It's a pain in the butt, but at least it is possible to do. If Google or it's subcontractor discontinues a proprietary application or, as a number of companies did during the .com crash, simply disappears overnight, you will lose everything without a hope of recovery.

From a business data perspective, we are now generally on a 6 or 7 year cycle. Where places like Giffin used to keep drawings and data forever. ISO-2001, QS and all the rest have stopped that. We were actually REQUIRED to get rid of our old customer files by the quality system, so now everything goes in a relatively short time - even as it ironically became easier to keep them. From a PERSONAL perspective, where are generations just a little way down the road going to find those old boxes of pictures to sort through? Instead, they will find boxes of CD-r's and DVD-r's which have either deteriorated to the point of being unusable or for which there is no software available to look at them. We are losing the past faster than anyone can imagine. And there are few living who will take the initiative to re-copy and re-format those pictures often enough to prevent their loss.  

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