Google unveiled preliminary information about its new Aura window manager for Chrome and Chrome OS, which had us guessing for the past half year. Now we know that Aura will be the next big milestone for the browser as it transitions to a hardware-accelerated user interface that will enable much richer visuals than Chrome does today.
Aura surfaced for the first time in June of this year when Google enabled a peek at a non-functional window manager in Chromium, which did not offer anything beyond basic geometric shapes. More than 400 posted commits in Chromium revision log over the past two months alone show, however, that there is quite a bit of activity surrounding Aura. A new wiki page as well as a Chromium project page provide more detail and describe Aura as “a new accelerated user interface framework for Chrome UI” which “must offer rich visuals, large-scale animated transitions and effects that can be produced only with the assistance of hardware acceleration.”
It is unclear how far along Aura is at this time, but we assume that the project is still in its nascent stages as there is just a first design doc and only initial project goals available, which exclude multi-monitor support and remote desktop capability. References within the Chromium revision log indicate that basic versions of Aura are running, but there are many notes that simply deal with fixing Aura and getting it to launch. There are no graphics available at this time, with the exception of basic elements such as window corners as well as window features such as minimize, maximize and restore. Google’s developer team mentioned that it currently has a shell library for Aura that can be used in Chrome and there is a “test runner”, which initiates the shell. We have no reliable information when Aura could become available, but Google noted that it is a “complex project with several sub-efforts” that cover “compositor, Gtk-removal (Gtk is the toolkit that is used to build the Chrome interface), Aura and the Aura Shell/Chrome Integration.”
Aura will, apparently, be included in all Chrome versions (including Linux), but there is considerable focus on Windows initially to create an ability for Google to be much more independent of what Microsoft does with Windows and come up with its own native window manager (and native widget system) instead. While we don’t have any details about Aura, it is interesting to note that Mozilla is pursuing a similar approach and will be removing Gtk in future versions of its browser as well. We are certainly seeing a trend here.
Among Google’s goals are cross-platform code and own a “flexible windowing system” for Chrome and Chrome OS on multiple form factors (which will also play into Chrome for Android). However, it is particularly noteworthy that the released documents highlight hardware acceleration for the Aura UI to provide “scalable performance characteristics depending on the target hardware capability.”
The common sense assumption would be that Google could deliver a similar user experience on a variety of devices, especially when smartphones turn into superphones and tablets arrive with heterogeneous many-core processors. In the mainstream and especially in the Chrome OS space, Google could be more flexible to deliver a user experience that is much closer to what Microsoft offers with Windows: Aura may be the answer to Microsoft’s effort to bring down Windows 8 to ARM devices. Also, keep in mind that Microsoft will heavily leverage IE9 to run HTML5 apps inside Windows 8 and Google will need a very compelling interface to counter Microsoft.
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