Google: Chrome in 'never-ending' beta

Revamps auto-update mechanism to offer 'stable,' 'beta' and 'dev' builds.

Google said last week that its Chrome browser would be in a "never-ending" beta test, and gave users three options to update their copies at varying intervals.

Although the search company stripped the beta label from Chrome a month ago, Thursday it said it was revamping how it updates the browser so that some users would essentially be participating in "a never-ending Beta test."

Rather than using just one "channel," the term it has used to describe the update mechanism for not-quite-ready versions of Chrome, Google has shifted to three, Mark Larson, a technical program manager with the company, said in a blog post Thursday.

"The channels are essentially a never-ending Beta test and a continuous feedback loop that lets us rapidly develop new ideas into solid product features," argued Larson.

The three channels include stable, beta and developer preview.

Stable means finished and polished, "rock solid," said Larson, and is the update channel set by default in Google.

Beta includes features that Google deems suitable reliable for wide testing, and will be refreshed about once a month, according to Larson. "The Beta channel is more stable than Dev, but may lack the polish one expects from a finished product," he said.

The developer preview channel means, "very unstable at times," said Larson, and includes new features that will probably require some manual configuration to be enabled.

Users who want to subscribe to either the Beta of Developer preview channels can do so by downloading and running a small utility, available here. Google Chrome Channel Changer 2.0 offers the three choices -- Stable, Beta and Dev -- that Larson spelled out.

Users who tried an earlier version of the channel-changing utility to get frequent developer builds have been automatically moved to the Beta channel, added Larson. The new Developer preview channel is "less polished than what [previous] Dev channel users have been getting during Google Chrome's Beta," he explained.

Larson also used the opportunity to get in a not-so-subtle dig against browsers from rivals such as Mozilla Corp. and Microsoft.

"We want to release fewer features more often instead of making you wait 12 months for the next Major Dot-Oh Release Jam-Packed With Features," Larson said. "Because we don't have those big Dot-Oh release milestones on the calendar, we don't have long periods of Beta testing new features."

Both Mozilla, the maker of Firefox, and Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer still accounts for nearly 70% of all browsers, rely on periodic major updates that go through long periods of beta testing. Mozilla, for instance, is working through beta testing of Firefox 3.1, the successor to Firefox 3.0, which launched in June 2008.

Also Thursday, Google said it had updated the Developer preview channel to a new build, tagged as "2.0.156.1," that includes a host of additions and improvements. They include a new auto complete feature that fleshes out partially-typed entries in online forms, another that "docks" tabs dragged to the desktop's top, bottom and sides.

Chrome 2.0.156.1 also uses a newer version of WebKit -- the open-source browser engine that powers Chrome and Apple Inc.'s Safari -- as well as the newest version of Google's own V8 JavaScript engine.

According to data from Web metrics company Net Applications Inc., Chrome had a 1% market share last month, a record for the browser.

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Gregg Keizer

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