Google has taken the wraps off of another couple of tasty tidbits, and while one is more or less old hat, the other one is something that can really help major geeks like myself. Let me knock the trivial release out of the way first: a new version of the Google Firefox Toolbar is out, and besides the usual stability improvements and bugfixes, this one adds a few new features. There’s the Safe Browsing feature we discussed last week, an option to set GMail as your default e-mail client for clicked mailto: links, improved RSS feed subscription handling, and a choice of layouts for the toolbar itself. The search box now supports Google Suggest functionality, which is always cool. Most of these things are handled by separate extensions already, but it’s quite handy to keep it all together and supported by a well-funded development team.
On to the real news: the Google Browser Sync extension. If you only ever browse from a single computer, this tool is not for you. Move along. But if you’re like me, juggling six installed operating systems at last count, each with a separate Firefox installation, this is the best thing since baked bread. The Googlish announcement sounds almost too good to be true:
Google Browser Sync unifies your bookmarks, history, saved passwords, and persistent cookies across all the computers where you install it. It also remembers which tabs and windows you had open when you last closed any of your browsers and gives you a chance to reopen them. We think you’ll enjoy how it handles sync conflicts and “just works,” enabling you to bring your browser with you everywhere.
There are a number of bookmark synchronizers available as Firefox extensions already, including at least one that leverages the Google Bookmarks feature of the personalized homepage. But this one does more than that: it can sync up your saved passwords, browsing history, and cookies too. That makes for a more homogenized browsing experience, where you don’t have to worry about saving those pesky passwords for each browsing environment, or set up site options cookies many times over for the same site.
I know that some of you will complain that cookies are evil, and you’re welcome to your opinion. I for one find them convenient from time to time, and can appreciate the value of keeping your cookie jar consistent everywhere you go. You can turn off the synchronization of any category of data that you’d rather keep separate, so don’t let the cookie thing stop you if that’s your only complaint so far. There’s more goodness still to come.
You can leave a few sites up in your browser at work and just go home. When you get there, resync your browser and you will be asked whether you’d like to restore any of the last session’s open sites to your current Firefox instance. If you’re too lazy to bookmark, or just can’t alway ensure that you’re planning ahead, this feature alone could be worth all the cookies in the Oreo factory.
The synchronization process is quite painless. Install the extension, restart your browser, and walk through a couple of setup questions. At the end of that, you’ll be logged in to your Google account and have your options properly set up, and waiting for your first sync to run to completion. It can take a couple of minutes, depending on the amount of
junk data you keep in your bookmarks. Do this once for each computer/OS/Firefox installation you’d like to keep updated, and you’re good to go. When you run a sync, that Firefox instance becomes active and the previous synchronization session is ended. The data in central storage merges with anything in your current session that’s different, while doing what appears to be a good job of eliminating duplicate data.
It’s a great tool for progressive multifocal geeks like yours truly (though I’m still waiting for something that will keep my installed extensions syncrhonized as well), but also for migrating regular Joes onto a new Conroe laptop or Ubuntu installation. OK, Vista installation. The Browser Sync tool really does “just work,” and I’m looking forward to a more enjoyable browsing experience when moving across platforms thanks to it.
So what’s in it for Google? Of course, you need an active Google account to use the tool, so there could be a few extra signups involved. The more, the merrier, especially as we look at future moves into powering TV ads and the like. And increasing the reach of Firefox could be a shrewd move against Microsoft’s browser market dominance and the accompanying default browser settings issues. But in the big picture, this application shouldn’t really matter too much. Letting Google engineers work on this kind of thing in their 20 percent time doesn’t cost Google anything they haven’t already budgeted for, and it keeps the staff happy. If the occasional user finds some use for these playthings too, the company basically gains some mindshare for free. And in this case, I’m reaping the benefits of some introverted dork’s labor of love. More of that, I say!