Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Canary in a Coal Mine

In early coal mines, there were no ventilation systems, making toxic gases like carbon monoxide and methane a serious problem.  Miners needed a way to detect these gases and give them enough time to get out of the shaft. Hence, the canary.  The workers would bring a canary in a cage into the mine, and because canaries bodies are more sensitive than those of humans, the miners would know that if the canary's singing stopped and the bird became sick or died, then everyone should evacuate the tunnel.

Knowing this background helps to explain the name of one of Google's latest projects, the Google Chrome Canary Build.  As you may or may not know, Google previously offered three different versions of their popular browser, Chrome.  Dubbed, "channels" by the company, users can install either the Stable Channel (the default choice, for those who don't want to worry about anything potentially breaking), the Beta Channel (for the slightly more adventurous...normally fairly stable, but not without a few bugs), and the Dev Channel (for developers who build extensions for the browser and need first access to new features).

Enter the Canary Build.  Google decided that the Dev Channel, which is updated once a week, wasn't getting them feedback fast enough.  The Canary Build is updated almost every night, meaning that users will have access to the latest features almost immediately after the developers write them.  Sounds great, right? Well, the trade off for that access is an extremely high probability that the browser will stop working for some period of time.  If a developer makes a mistake in the code, it could bring everything crashing down.  On the bright side, tomorrow brings another update to Canary which will more than likely fix the issue.

Google knows that there are not many people who would be willing to put up with a browser that could possibly spend a significant amount of time broken.  So they came up with a solution. While users must choose only one "channel" to install on their computer (Stable, Beta, or Dev), the Canary Build is installed separately from the user's normal Chrome installation.  What this means is that you can use Canary when you want, and experience the newest features, but if toxic gases turn your bird's song sour, you have your stable version of Chrome to escape to.

I personally have been using Canary for a week or two now and I've only had a few problems that made me fall back to Chrome (Beta channel, if you were wondering).  If you're interested, the Canary Build can be downloaded here.