Is Google Chrome Frame the right approach?

Google have just released Google Chrome Frame for IE in an attempt to improve Internet Explorer. But will it have a real world impact?

We have seen so many campaigns against IE, most originating from the design and development community. We rant and rave, but we rarely offer much in the way of solutions.

Google on the other hand is trying a more proactive approach with the launch of Google Chrome Frame. Essentially it is a plugin for IE that renders sites viewed in IE using the Chrome rendering engine, rather than the IE engine. To the user it looks like they are still using IE when in fact the site is being displayed in Webkit.

The problems

To get your website to render in Google Chrome Frame it is necessary to add some meta data to your pages. This is certainly easy to do and I can see it being adopted by web applications that do not currently support IE. However, before this can work the user has to first install the plugin. That is where things get tricky.

As I have said before, the reason most users are running IE6 is because they are in corporate environments where they do not have the opportunity to upgrade. They do not have the freedom to install plugins.

Also, I have concerns about the message this is sending. This should not be viewed as a way for us as web designers to drop IE. It undermines the ‘accessibility for all’ message which I believe is so important. We should be supporting all users no matter their choice of browser.

That said I do see some opportunities here.

The opportunity

What excites me most about Chrome Frame are corporate environments. As I have already said, the biggest proportion of IE6 users exist within corporate environments. Their IT department will not allow them to upgrade. However, this decision by IT is not made just to spite web designers. It is made for a number of good business reasons.

One such reason is compatibility with legacy systems. A lot of organisations use web applications that only work in IE6. They are prevented from upgrading because of the cost associated with rewriting a business critical application.

What I love about Chrome Frame is that it provides a work around for this situation. IT departments can install the plugin and get the best of both worlds. They can still use IE6 for their internal apps while Google Chrome Frame will render some of the more advanced applications on the wider web.

Conclusions

Despite some concerns I do believe there is a place for Chrome Frame. However, take-up is going to be the key to its success or failure. Of course the big question is will we even be able to track take-up? Will the plugin identify itself as Google Frame, IE or even Webkit? Will our stats packages be able to tell us if I substantial number of our IE users  have the plugin installed?

We shall see.

  • http://www.tombryan.co.uk Teebee

    As exciting as it first seems, it doesn’t change the fact that this is yet another plugin/hack just to get Microsofts browser to play ball with new technologies. Technologies that haven’t as yet reached a final specification.

    Unless the majority of IE users are going to install this, which is unlikely, I see it as a bit of a fruitless attempt by Google. I’m just struggling to see the point at this stage, but absolutely it comes down to the plugins adoption rate.

    And, as web developers, we will still have to provide a gracefully degrading solution for those IE users who haven’t installed the plugin.

  • http://www.aaronrussell.co.uk Aaron Russell

    This pretty much mirrors my own thoughts. Adding one meta tag to our sites is no hassle so it’s a bit of a no-brainer, might as well do it. But we still need to consider all users including IE6 users with no fancy plugin… so nothing changes really.

  • http://slightlymore.co.uk Clinton Montague

    Well said. I wrote a (much well less written!) post voicing a very similar theme. I think that you’re spot on with taking this side on what will almost certainly become the Chrome Frame wars.

  • Tim Snadden

    The perfect use for this would be for a new internal app in an organisation with IE as the default browser. Users don’t get the disruption of learning a new interface but developers get the advantages of developing for a browser (IE is not a browser, it is an abomination).

  • http://www.actinowebdesign.com Paul Davison

    You asked the question ‘Will our stats packages be able to tell us if I substantial number of our IE users have the plugin installed?’

    The answer it appears is yes:

    “Google Chrome Frame reports that it is available by extending the host’s User-Agent header to add the string chromeframe…”
    source: http://code.google.com/chrome/chromeframe/developers_guide.html

    The question to my mind is what will spur the corporations to download this and make it available to their employees? Can’t see them doing it to allow support.

    Maybe the Google will bundle it with some other killer app, or remove support for IE in something that could prove business critical … hope so.

    I can’t imagine that they are doing this without some means/plan to crowbar it in to the niche it’s looking to fill.

    pd

  • Ben Smithett

    Great post Paul!

    While I agree that “We should be supporting all users no matter their choice of browser”, the reality of the situation is that IE, and IE alone, causes us web designers far more grief than anything else out there.

    I don’t see Chrome Frame as an opportunity for web designers to simply drop support for IE, which was one of your concerns. Whether we like it or not, we need to ensure that IE users without Chrome Frame will still be able to use our sites.

    Nevertheless, I do see this becoming a valuable tool.

    I know I have held back from using certain CSS3 features (rounded corners, drop shadows, etc) if the majority of a site’s users use IE. It wasn’t the user’s fault – their browser of choice simply doesn’t support those properties. Let’s face it – “browser support” is a concept that doesn’t (and shouldn’t!) exist outside the world of designers, developers and browser vendors. To our users, a browser is a browser.

    However Chrome Frame cleverly uses the familiar “plugin” model, a concept which DOES exist in the world of our users, and puts the ball back in the user’s court. Just as they may have been prompted to install a Flash or Quicktime plugin in the past, users are now prompted to install the Chrome Frame plugin if they want to see an enhanced version of the site.

    It takes the browser support issue and makes it something we can fix with progressive enhancement.

    This is a drastically different approach to recent attempts at weening users off IE6. Instead of telling users their browser isn’t supported and to upgrade/install a new browser (a scary prospect for your average user who didn’t even know there WERE other browsers), we simply prompt them to install a plugin (something they’ve probably done before… many times, if the multitude of crappy toolbars and widgets that dominate half of my grandpa’s IE screen are anything to go by!).

    Of course we still need to look after those IE6 users stuck in a corporate environment where they can’t install plugins. But we also need to acknowledge that anyone browsing in that sort of environment is probably pretty used to seeing a non-enhanced version of the Internet.

    Chrome Frame gives them (read: their employers) an easy way to add support for the Internet circa 2009 without completely overhauling their IT systems. If they choose not to, we can still serve up basic content.

    But if people in that company do get sick of seeing basic content, it should be a hell of a lot easier for IT departments to roll out an unobtrusive plugin that only gets enabled on sites that call it than to roll out a completely new browser.

    • Ben Smithett

      gah! the comments box didn’t include any of my line breaks!! sorry guys :(

      • http://richarcher.co.uk Rich Archer

        Very well put Paul – I agree that whilst it’s a marvelous development from Google, and obviously I’ll be using it, it’s a no-brainer, really.
        I can’t help feeling, however, that this will be used by the developers of the IE6-dependent apps you mention as a quick-fix, removing their need to improve their software to be more compliant with modern browsers, potentially keeping IE6 as a dominant share of the market for far longer than it would done otherwise.

    • http://www.sanchothefat.com Robert O’Rourke

      Hear hear!

      A lot of people don’t even know the difference between a browser and a search engine and why hsould they (it doesn’t mean they’re stupid either).

      Link: People on the street being asked the question “What is a browser?”

      http://www.pleaseenjoy.com/project.php?cat=4&subcat=&pid=131&navpoint=6

  • http://devongovett.wordpress.com/ Devon Govett

    I don’t think that Google Chrome Frame is really for websites. It is really for advance web applications that need to take advantage of new web technologies such as those in HTML5 (canvas, SVG, video tag, audio tag, etc.) as well as faster javascript. As more and more applications are developed on the web rather than on the desktop, developers will need these technologies in order to make their applications stand up to their desktop counterparts. Anyway, that’s just my 2-cents.

  • http://annalangella.com Anna Langella

    very nice idea. would be interested to hear how many downloads it gets. slightly strange to think someone would want to keep ie6, but be willing to install a plugin to avoid having to use ie6!

  • http://www.xlevel.org.uk/ xlevel

    I can see it being very useful for corporate environments where you have a number of Web Apps that require IE6 and other, more modern apps, that might not work so well with IE6. The perfect plugin would be the other way around, allowing more modern browsers to revert to IE6 for the Web Apps that need it. This would allow corporates to ween themselves off IE6 and would cut it’s use down dramatically. The trouble is that for this to be taken up by the corporate world, it would have to be built by or published through Microsoft, and this will never happen.

  • http://www.aber.ac.uk Alan Evans

    Great Idea, just a pity that google couldnt have done it in user space somehow – so that those without admin access could use it.

    But any contribution to getting rid of IE6 is a good one in my book.

  • Xelo
  • Steen

    Every credit to Google for trying to remove us of IE6.

  • http://biletime.com phil

    If IE simply won’t work, and you need to ask the user to install a plugin, then this is the killer plugin, might as well install this one, and get .ogg playback, svg, canvas, server fonts, fast js a sane box model, no float drops… and a host of other cool stuff. Blows away flash. Blows away custom programs and codecs and such installed outside of the browser. As a side benefit it removes essentially all IE testing too, which is nothing but pain.

    Way better to ask for this plugin than warn the site does not render correctly unless on Firefox, Safari or Chrome.

    This is NOT about adding a meta tag, it is about the Google supplied javascript that forces this plugin to be installed before continuing into a website if the user is on IE… Just like flash enabled sites do/did… That is where the power of this trick comes from. As a web designer I can know that there are no raw IE users who don’t know how badly messed up their visit is… on advanced sites any more…

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