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Chrome 85 to erase ads that hog network, CPU resources

Google last week said that this summer Chrome will remove resource-hogging web advertisements from websites, including ads that mask unauthorized crypto-mining operations.

Arguing that a very small number of online ads – three-tenths of a percentage point of all on the web – disproportionately account for major portions of total network and CPU consumption, Google plans to scrub sites of such ads starting with a Stable build of Chrome near the end of August.

Chrome 85 is scheduled to release on Aug. 25, and would be the most likely version to debut the feature.

“These ads (such as those that mine cryptocurrency, are poorly programmed, or are unoptimized for network usage) can drain battery life, saturate already strained networks, and cost money,” Marshall Vale, a Chrome product manager, wrote in a May 14 post to the Chromium blog.

When Chrome detects one of the über-aggressive ads, the browser will unload the content from the ad’s frame – the portion of the page in which it’s displayed – and refill the space with an error message stating “Ad removed,” along with a link to more information.

After copious measurements, Google decided to strip out any ad that consumed 4MB of network data, used the CPU during half of any 30-second span or tallied a total of 60 seconds of CPU usage. Those bars were so high that they affected only 0.3% of all ads, but, Google contended, such ads accounted for 27% of all ad-generated network traffic and 28% of all ad-related CPU usage.

Other browsers have addressed bad actors, including crypto-miners, using different approaches. Mozilla’s Firefox, for example, blocks crypto-miners by targeting domains known to harbor such scripts. (Mozilla relies on domain lists produced by Disconnect.) It’s not surprising that Google took a metrics-based route here; it typically bases decisions, or says it does, on data collected by Chrome and/or its search engine.

Chrome users can try out this “Heavy Ad” detection and removal prior to version 85 via the chrome://flags option page. Set the Heavy Ad Intervention flag (which also goes by #enable-heavy-ad-intervention) to Enabled and relaunch the browser.

Site developers and ad content creators should use the time between now and late August to test and, if necessary, alter first-party advertisements, Google said. “Our intent with this extended rollout is to give appropriate time for ad creators and tool providers to prepare and incorporate these thresholds into their workflows,” said Vale.

Detailed instructions on how to track removed ads using an API as well as how to test the resource usage of ad content were provided in this support document.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Google’s grand Chrome OS plan is finally coming into focus

Chromebooks started out all about simplicity. Lately, though, they’ve gotten kinda complicated.

Maybe it’s an inevitable side effect of growth — or maybe just the piecemeal manner in which Google’s Chrome OS platform has expanded — but Chromebooks today have so many program-running possibilities, it’s damn near impossible to keep ’em straight. The computers can still run web apps, of course, just like in their earliest days, but they also now support the similar-looking-but-more-powerful progressive web apps, the on-their-way-out-but-still-present Chrome apps, the familiar-from-your-phone Android apps, and even the clunky-but-capable Linux apps. Sheesh!

It’s enough to make anyone’s head spin — and most dizzying of all, those app types overlap in some pretty perplexing ways. If you want to use Google Photos, for instance, you can rely on the regular web app, snag the progressive web app, or install the Android app for the service. Need to hop on a Zoom call? You can grab the Chrome extension, install the Android app, or even give yourself the Linux version. Each option offers a slightly different experience with slightly different features, and they’re absolutely not all equal.

As a result, it practically takes a cheat sheet to figure out and remember which type of app is best for which purpose and where you should go to find it. (The Chrome Web Store? The Google Play Store? The, uh, whatever place you’re supposed to go to find progressive web apps or Linux apps?!) Or, if you’re like most casual Chromebook users, you might just look at whatever source comes to mind first without even considering the other options.

The complexity of the Chrome OS app situation has become a real problem, as I’ve learned from talking to countless Chromebook owners who are overwhelmed by the labyrinth of overlapping options. Versatility is a strength, for sure, but it can also end up being a weakness when it isn’t presented properly. And that’s a real head-scratcher to solve: How do you bring all these different and often-duplicative app types together in a way that’s effortless to understand and simple to manage?

Well, after many months of messiness, it seems Google may finally be onto a solution — or at least the start of one. And it’s easy to imagine its implications eventually stretching even further than this one single platform. (Hint, hint: Android. More on that in a minute.)

The Chrome OS app answer

So here it is: Google appears to be working to position the Play Store as not just a place for Android apps, as it’s traditionally been, but as a broader one-stop shop for multiple types of apps on Chromebooks — with the store itself determining which app type makes the most sense for any given purpose and then installing the appropriate option for you.

It’s simple. It’s thought-free. And subtle of a shift as it may seem, it goes an impressively long way in detangling the web of complexity that’s been present in the Chrome OS app ecosystem for quite a while.

Now, all things in perspective: So far, this new setup is known to exist in precisely two places, as initially discovered by the website Chrome Unboxed: in the Play Store page for the Twitter app and the in Play Store page for the YouTube TV app. And what’s especially interesting is that those pages don’t look any different than any other app pages on the Play Store — and in fact, there’s no real indication you’re receiving anything other than an Android app when you visit ’em.

Chrome OS Apps: YouTube TV JR

The YouTube TV Play Store page, as seen on a Chromebook — nothing out of the ordinary.

When you click the Install button on either page from a Chromebook, you end up with a lightweight app that looks like an app, acts like an app, and feels like an app. If anything, it comes across as an especially good app: It opens quickly, runs smoothly in any size or orientation, and works perfectly well online or off. It’s only if you’re an astute observer (read: total nerd) that you’ll notice it’s not actually the Android app you’re using but its progressive web app cousin. And that’s exactly how it should be: No normal person needs to know or think about what type of app they’re using at any given moment. They should just be able to go to a single, obvious storefront, find the software best suited for their current environment, and install it — then know it’ll work well from that point forward.

Chrome OS Apps: Twitter (PWA) JR

Looks like an app, acts like an app, and feels like an app — but despite coming from the Play Store, this is actually Twitter’s fully responsive progressive web app.

And lest you think this is a mere fluke, a Google manager who works on Chrome OS and apps tweeted about the topic and described this as being Google’s “strategy” and “some of the most challenging and satisfying engineering work” he’s ever performed.

That sure makes it sound like what we’re seeing now is only the beginning of a broader effort to turn the Play Store into a streamlined source of apps for Chromebooks — and, who knows, maybe eventually other types of Googley products.

It isn’t as much of a stretch as you might think.

The bigger Play Store picture

Consider this: Google’s been experimenting with the idea of progressive web apps on Android for a while now. The company already makes it possible for developers to embed such programs within traditional Android app structures and then put those into the Play Store. How far of a leap would it be to start offering up standalone progressive web apps directly in place of Android apps for phones, too, in circumstances where that’d be optimal?

I’ll tell you this: I have some standalone progressive web apps on my own phone, and while I stumbled onto ’em mostly by accident (it’s basically a crap-shoot when you try to add a website to your home screen at this point), they’re surprisingly pleasant to use — in a way that almost makes you forget you aren’t using a regular, native Android app. Just sayin’.

But back to Chromebooks: When you combine this latest development with the pending demise of Chrome apps and the repositioning of the Chrome Web Store as a place strictly for browser-specific themes and extensions, Chrome OS’s convoluted web of apps suddenly starts looking a lot less complicated. And especially once you remember that Google recently added an all-in-one app management screen into the Chrome OS system settings — a single place where you can see, adjust, and uninstall any of your apps, regardless of their nature — it’s easy to regard everything we’re seeing now as the seeds of a new and simpler Chromebook app arrangement.

The one area not yet included is the realm of Linux apps on Chrome OS, but that’s still considered beta-level, experimental territory — not something for average schmoes to tinker around with (yet). And we’ve actually seen signs of Google at least thinking about making it possible for us to find and install Linux apps in some sort of simplified, streamlined manner. We’ve also seen the Chrome OS team playing around with ideas for a system-level “App Service” that’d bring all the platform’s different app types together in a way that suddenly seems strangely familiar.

Put all these pieces together with the apparent new strategy to use the Play Store as a primary storefront, and you’ve got the potential to turn Chrome OS’s mishmash of overlapping app types into a more unified software experience — one where what type of app you’re using almost becomes irrelevant. Instead of thinking about Android apps, Linux apps, or progressive web apps, they’d all just become Chromebook apps from the user’s perspective.

It’s still a tall order, and we certainly aren’t there yet. But this latest step gives me hope that Google might finally be on the right path — and maybe, just maybe, might be on its way to bringing back a touch of the simplicity Chrome OS once had but then lost along the way.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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What Chrome OS needs to conquer next

Psst: Come close. I’ve got quite the secret to share with you. It’s something those of us who use Chromebooks in our daily lives have known for a while — but something the vast majority of people (and the vast majority of folks who write about this stuff, for that matter) have yet to fully realize.

Ready? Here it is: Little by little, bit by bit, Chrome OS on a tablet has been turning into an increasingly impressive experience. With every passing month, almost, Google adds a touch more polish and a smidge more power into the environment. And with the latest update, announced this week, the Chromebook tablet experience is suddenly feeling surprisingly cohesive — almost, dare I say it, complete.

And yet, despite all that progress, one piece of the puzzle is still conspicuously missing — a massive and thus-far-overlooked opportunity Google and its hardware-making partners seem destined to embrace.

The Chrome OS journey

We’ll get to that beckoning opportunity in a minute. First, let me back up, ’cause there’s a lot to unpack here — and unless you’re among the relative few who follow Chrome OS news closely, most of it probably isn’t common knowledge. Google, y’see, has been working to align its two primary platforms, Android and Chrome OS, for years. (And yes, I know: For the longest time, all you heard about was how the company was destined to kill off one of those operating systems and combine ’em into a single entity. That narrative, suffice it to say, was woefully misguided and missing the actual reality, which was right in front of our faces all along.)

Over the past few years, the Android-Chrome-OS alignment effort has gained steam quickly — with Chromebooks natively running Android apps, adopting Android-like interface elements left and right, and coming in a variety of physical tablet forms.

It was two and a half years ago that I said Chromebooks were effectively the new “Android tablets,” with Google putting its weight squarely behind that setup as its large-screen, touch-friendly vehicle of the future. Since then, the trend has only accelerated, with traditional Android tablets becoming a niche-like, barely-addressed footnote in Google’s mobile-tech universe and the Chrome OS tablet experience receiving regular attention and support.

And that brings us back to this week, when Google released one of the biggest updates to the Chromebook tablet setup in ages: a software rollout that completely reimagines how you get around a Chromebook in its touch-centric form and basically brings it in line with the current Android 10 gesture standard.

That includes a swipe-up gesture for returning to your home screen, a swipe-up-and-hold gesture for accessing the system Overview interface, and a swipe-in-from-the-left gesture for moving back a step. There are some Chromebook-specific twists added into the equation — like the ability to swipe up once with a short movement to pull up the now-hidden-by-default desktop dock (which apparently has become the “Quick Shelf”) — but all in all, it’s very much an adaptation of the Android arrangement, just slightly adjusted to make sense for the Chromebook form.

And that’s the key: If you’ve used a recent Android phone, getting around a Chromebook in its tablet state now feels immediately familiar. The same will soon hold true for the actual Chrome browser experience on a Chromebook, which is in the process of being updated to feature a more touch-friendly, Android-reminiscent design, with the added element of an drag-and-drop-ready tab strip for simpler touch-based tab management.

Chrome OS Gestures Google

And remember: The Chrome browser on a Chromebook, even in that tablet mode, is at its core the same Chrome browser you’d get on any desktop computer. That means it gives you a desktop-caliber browsing experience — a difference anyone who’s ever tried to do actual work from a mobile device will appreciate — and in most cases, it comes with the option to switch over to a laptop-level keyboard and capable trackpad, too. When it comes to productivity and versatility, there’s just no comparison between that and what you get with the traditional Android tablet.

And that’s to say nothing of the security and value factors: Chromebooks are updated universally — directly by Google, with no manufacturer meddling or inexcusable delays — with new software and security upgrades rolling out every few weeks to every current device, regardless of who made it. Thanks to some recent improvements, most models are now receiving said updates for a full seven to eight years from the time of their launch.

Seven to eight years of timely, ongoing updates — compare that to the two years of irregular, unreliable updates you’ll get if you’re lucky on any Android tablet, and you can see where we’re going with this. For anyone who actually cares about their computing experience and having the most secure, privacy-conscious, and performance-optimized environment possible, there’s just no justification for buying a regular Android tablet anymore.

And with that (whew!), we’re finally ready to think ahead to the future.

Chrome OS’s next crown

All right, so back to that area Chrome OS needs to conquer. When you look at what types of tablets people are actually buying these days, what do you see? Specific data can be somewhat tough to come by, but we can pretty easily assemble a broad overview of what’s happening.

The big trend, not surprisingly, is that Apple tends to be the most prominent player in tablet sales — with around 36% of the worldwide market, according to IDC’s latest stats. But it’s what comes next that’s particularly interesting for our current purposes.

The second-place tablet-seller, again in no huge surprise, is almost always Samsung. But despite all the breathless coverage given to the company’s high-priced tablets, IDC’s past data indicates the “majority of its shipments” have been “comprised of the lower-end E and A series” devices. Hmmm.

The next especially-significant-to-the-U.S. player in the list is Amazon, which uses Android as the base for its own custom tablet operating system. And guess what? Amazon’s top-selling tablets are all dirt cheap — with the $50 Fire 7 leading the pack, according to the site’s current metrics. Across the board, in fact, Amazon’s top 10 best-selling tablets are made up of eight Fire-branded devices, with an average price of $82.50.

So why are traditional Android tablets still hanging on and Chromebooks as tablets failing to catch, erm, fire? The answer is right in front of our eyes: When it comes to the non-Apple-associated tablet experience, people seem to be looking for cheap and often thus small-sized options. And while you can most certainly find Chromebooks in the sub-$200 range, those lower-end systems are typically rather junky full-sized laptops without touch-screen support. You aren’t gonna find a touch-capable Chrome device for 82 bucks — that’s for damn sure.

Google can keep improving the Chrome OS tablet experience all it wants — and those of us who use Chromebooks as part of our productivity setups will be grateful — but if it wants the concept to take off in a broadly significant way, it sure seems like encouraging the creation of inexpensive Chrome slates that’d compete with their outdated, second-rate Android tablet cousins would go a long way. Whether we’re thinking about people buying devices for kids or picking up secondary, supplementary slates for their own simple use, that’s clearly where the demand resides.

And you know what else? Once people start seeing what Chrome OS in a tablet form is like to use and what it’s now capable of doing, Google would have a much easier time selling them on the notion of embracing the platform for productivity as well.

Let’s not forget, too, that Chromebooks have been seeing consistently strong growth over recent years — an apparent 19% year-to-year jump in sales in the fourth quarter of 2019 — and that countless students are practically being raised on the things, thanks to their prominent role in education. The seeds are all planted. Someone just needs to water ’em.

Already, Google has leapfrogged its original tablet form and created a superior alternative. Now it’s time for it to finish the job with Chrome OS and put what’s left of the traditional Android tablet out of its misery. And filling in this piece of the platform’s foundation sure seems like a sensible step to getting there.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Give Chrome a time-saving tab switcher

When I’m working on a computer these days, I tend to think of Chrome as my desktop. And really, it’s no wonder: Regardless of whether I’m using Chrome OS or Windows, nearly everything I do now takes place in the browser — or some form of it.

And yet, by default, Chrome isn’t exactly designed to act like a desktop. It’s just missing too many pieces and overlooking too many efficiency-enhancing opportunities. That’s why, little by little, I’ve been looking for creative ways to fill in those gaps and turn my browser into a true desktop-caliber productivity tool.

Since I’ve already replaced Chrome’s mostly useless New Tab page with a far more effective “home screen” of sorts, I got to thinking about the next missing element in my makeshift desktop environment — and I realized it was an effective tab switcher.

I don’t know about you, but I use a task switcher constantly when I’m working. Hitting Alt-Tab is just such a fast and easy way to move from one app, window, or process to another, and I’ve always got at least a dozen different things open that I need to toggle between.

But when those things include browser windows with multiple tabs inside ’em, the traditional task switcher suddenly becomes a lot less useful. More often than not, I’m trying to get to some specific tab, somewhere, and end up having to rely on luck and/or memory to find the window where it resides.

The answer, then, is to supplement the standard operating system task switcher with a browser-specific tab switcher. And lemme tell ya: Gaining such a feature is a bit of a revelation, especially if you tend to keep tons of tabs open like I do.

Best of all? The whole thing takes about 20 seconds to set up.

20 seconds to smarter tab switching

The first and only real step to giving your browser its own effective tab switcher is to install the aptly named Tab Switcher extension into Chrome. It’s not the only extension of its sort, but after testing far too many similar pieces of software, I’ve found it to be the best — for its simplicity, its ease of use, its minimalist design, and also its emphasis on privacy and transparency: The extension doesn’t collect or store any sort of data, and you can even examine its code yourself to confirm that, as it’s open source and available for anyone to review.

Once you install the Tab Switcher extension, you’ll see a new icon to the right of your Chrome address bar — a rectangular box that looks kind of like a browser window, with a magnifying glass on top of it. But the smartest way to use your new tab switcher doesn’t actually involve interacting with that icon at all; instead, it’s all about embracing the extension’s keyboard shortcut: Ctrl-Shift-K (or Cmd-Shift-K, on a Mac).

Hit those three keys together — or change the sequence to something else, if you’d rather, by typing chrome:extensions/shortcuts into your address bar and finding the extension within the list on that page — and bam: You’ll be staring face to, erm, pixels with a pleasantly formatted list of all your open tabs and the windows they reside in.

Chrome Tab Switcher (2) JR

Here’s the real beauty of this setup, though: Once you’ve got Tab Switcher activated, all you have to do is start typing the name of the tab you want to find — any word within its title or address, in fact — and the software will narrow down its list with every letter you type. It typically takes just a letter or two, and you’ll see the tab you’re looking for at the top of the Tab Switcher window. And then, you can simply hit enter, and you’ll be zapped over to that tab faster than you can say “titillating tab trickery.”

Chrome Tab Switcher (2) JR

Tab Switcher has some other interesting (one might even say titillating) tricks up its sleeve, too. For instance, the software lets you quickly close tabs by clicking the “x” alongside ’em in the switcher. You can also drag and drop tabs between windows right within its interface, and they’ll switch positions instantly within your actual browser. You can even ask Tab Switcher to sort your tabs alphabetically by URL — in their actual positioning within your browser windows — by typing :sort into its search box. And you can “deduplicate” tabs by using the :dd command, which leaves you with only one actively open instance of any given site.

But it’s the basic tab switching that really makes this extension worth having — and makes your browser experience meaningfully more desktop-like, effective, and complete.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Google to resume Chrome releases on April 7

Google today said it will resume Chrome releases in two weeks and plans to make good on the multi-week suspension by skipping a version.

Chrome 81, the upgrade that was previously slated for a March 17 debut, will instead launch in two weeks, on April 7.

In the meantime, Chrome 80 will receive at least one more update – at some point next week, Google said – with fixes for vulnerabilities and what the search firm called “critical” issues. Releases of the Beta, Dev and Canary channels, which contain builds of decreasing polish and stability, either have already resumed or will this week.

Google suspended Chrome releases on March 18, citing “adjusted work schedules” but clearly blaming the COVID-19 pandemic and its massive overturning of business and personal conduct.

On March 10, for example, Google recommended that all North American employees work from home. Later, Santa Clara County, where Google’s HQ is located, was one of several that told residents to “shelter-in-place.”

Chrome 82 was canceled by Google to make up for the time lost by the suspension. That upgrade was to appear April 28.

Instead, the features and other work done on Chrome 82 during its stretches in the Dev and Beta channels will be rolled into Chrome 83, now slated to launch May 19. That’s three weeks earlier than its original June 9 date.

The schedule for Chrome 84 and beyond – shown here – has been accelerated by three weeks through at least Chrome 88, the first upgrade of 2021. “[Chrome 84] and beyond dates are still subject to change,” Google warned on the calendar, adding, “We will share a future update on the timing of the [Chrome 84] branch and releases” in the announcement of release resumption.

Rival Microsoft had followed Google’s lead by halting releases of its Edge browser – built on the same Chromium codebase as Chrome – two days later.

Although the Edge team had not made a similar announcement Thursday as of 2:30 p.m. ET, Microsoft will resume Edge releases at some point, probably on a cadence similar to Chrome’s.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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