Chrome users attack Google for zapping unsanctioned Windows add-ons

Pitchforks and torches in hand, Chrome users take to discussion forum to assail what they see as hand-holding and nanny-ism

Chrome users are up in arms again, this time over Google's plan to automatically disable some browser add-ons, according to scores of messages posted to Google's support forum.

"If I wanted my browser to hold my hand and treat me like I don't know how to use a computer I'd use Internet Explorer," said scottt732 in a message posted Wednesday to a long thread on Chrome's support discussion forum. "Now, I wake up to find that you took the pegs off of my bike and installed training wheels. Thanks for that."

scottt732 and others blasted Google for the latter's new policy, which automatically disables most extensions -- also called add-ons -- that were downloaded from locales other than the Chrome Web Store, Google's official e-mart. The only extensions that can be installed in Chrome are ones from the store.

Google has been talking up the auto-removal of unsanctioned extensions since November, when the company characterized the policy as a security necessity, claiming that "bad actors" were using loopholes to continue installing malicious add-ons without user approval or knowledge.

Google has already turned on the stricter rules in the Windows version of Chrome 33 Beta, one of three development channels it maintains. While not as popular as the Stable channel, Beta is used by millions who have opted for the previews.

There are some minor exemptions from the only-from-Chrome-Web-Store policy: Businesses and software developers can still offer add-ons from their own servers, but those extensions must also be published on the store.

Users, many of whom didn't realize they were running the Beta channel of Chrome -- or had forgot they'd switched in the past from the Stable build line -- were very unhappy when some extensions suddenly disappeared.

"You just disabled my Norton Identity Safe [extension]," bemoaned Annelies Van Gysegem Tuesday on the same long thread. "We have used and trusted Norton for years and I cannot believe you just disabled our security software."

Others reported that the Chrome extension for RoboForm, a popular Windows password manager, had been crippled. "I can not use my vendor-distributed version of RoboForm now because of the immediate implementation without warning of this policy," said dccsched. "To continue using Chrome, I am being forced to use a free Lite version of the product that is several versions old."

Many objected to the new policy on principle, saying that they weren't about to be told what extensions they could run alongside Chrome. "For the record, this sucks. I'm capable of making my own decisions, thanks," said myuniqueplacename last week.

"Absolutely ridiculous. I appreciate the sentiment, but I don't need Googlenanny to tell me which extensions are or are not allowed for me to run," echoed Nyx Valentine.

Chrome 33 Beta, which already enforces the new, stricter requirements on add-ons, displays this when it sees that the user has installed extensions from any source other than the official Chrome Web Store. (Image: Radu Banciu.)

The criticism of Google's plans for extensions was similar to the reaction users have had to other changes in Chrome, including a redesign of the new tab page and a push toward the user interface (UI) design of Chrome OS, Google's browser-based operating system. Both sparked a large number of complaints.

Those complaints have had mixed success in making the Mountain View, Calif. company change its mind. Even after months of griping about the new tab page revamp, Google has not caved to demands, but instead upped the ante by removing a setting in the advanced "chrome://flags" option page that once let users restore the older design. However, the company has said it will restore scrollbar arrows, also called "steppers," to the browser UI.

It looks like there's little chance it will reverse the extensions policy.

"Keeping our users safe online is a top priority and this change, along with others we're making, like enforcing our single-purpose extension policy, will help alleviate our users' top complaint: keeping browser settings and behavior from being compromised by unwanted extensions," a Google spokesperson said in a statement today when asked to provide the company's reaction to the backlash.

In a message to that thread Feb. 21, SarahMM, a Google employee who monitors the Chrome support forums and frequently posts messages, was clearer about plans. "[Chrome] Beta will remain as it is, so if you want you can move back to Stable, but be aware this change is coming to Stable," she wrote. "If those extensions are extremely important to you, please contact the developers and encourage them to apply [to] the Web store. Your other alternative is to move to Canary."

Canary is Chrome's roughest build, one even less polished than the Dev channel, and analogous to Firefox's Nightly channel.

Yesterday, Google announced it was postponing the implementation of the extension "kill switch" on Chrome's stable build until or after May 1, a new deadline it gave add-on developers for publishing their wares on the Chrome Web Store.

Under that timeline, it's likely that Chrome 35 for Windows will be the first stable build -- the one most people run -- to enforce the extension policy.

The policy does not affect the OS X or Linux versions of Chrome, or the Dev or Canary versions of the Windows browser.

Even that galled some.

"There is NO reason why a user should have to use the Dev channel to re-enable [the extensions]," said Jacob Henkel last Saturday. "As it stands, the Dev channel's ability to re-enable them should be present in all versions. If this is unacceptable for whatever reason, there should be a setting to enable this in [chrome://flags/] or as a command line argument."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed. His email address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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