Chrome saves juice by freezing some Flash content

Google yesterday switched on a feature in the Chrome beta that it said would save notebook battery power by freezing some content rendered using Adobe's Flash Player.

The option, now turned on by default in the beta -- one of three "channels" Chrome maintains -- will be automatically enabled in the stable build in the coming weeks.

"When you're on a Web page that runs Flash, we'll intelligently pause content (like Flash animations) that aren't central to the Web page, while keeping central content (like a video) playing without interruption," said Tommy Li, a Chrome software engineer, in a brief blog post. "This update significantly reduces power consumption, allowing you to surf the Web longer before having to hunt for a power outlet."

With the move, Chrome follows Safari's suit: In 2013, Apple added a similar feature to Safari 7, the edition bundled with OS X Mavericks. Safari ships with "Power Saver" enabled. In both browsers, users can click the Flash content to activate it. Sans a click, the content remains visible but static.

Chrome's power-saving feature can be manually enabled on the stable branch, or disabled in any version, from the Preferences pane. Users must click "Show advanced settings," then the "Content settings" button under Privacy, then select one of the three choices under Plugins.

Although Li didn't make it explicit, the paused content -- or in his words, what's not "central to the Web page" -- is primarily Flash-animated advertisements. (Computerworld runs such animated ads, for example.)

That got the attention of Jan Dawson, chief analyst with Jackdaw Research. "More potential for Google to exert control over the content users see," Dawson tweeted Thursday. "User has to notice it's paused and decide to run it. Against wishes of site owners and potentially users," he said in a Twitter follow-up.

Google has a history of making changes to Chrome that, while characterized solely as a benefit to users, are also to the company's advantage.

For example, Google has long battled software that makes underhanded changes to Chrome, including programs that modify the home page or drop unsanctioned ads into pages.

What it has left unsaid is that it would prefer that people -- or shifty software -- not alter the Chrome home page, which features the Google search engine, the Mountain View, Calif. firm's primary revenue generator. Likewise, the last thing Google wants is to have adware, especially the most irritating, turn off consumers to all online advertising.

Similarly, the latest change to Chrome stifles competing ads, and has the additional benefit of keeping people on the Web longer, maximizing Google's chance of showing them its ads.

"Google usually positions this stuff as being user friendly, and for the most part it is," said Dawson in an email reply to questions. "But to the extent Google makes these value judgments on behalf of users, there's always the potential that it could have negative side effects."

Chrome's beta branch is currently on v. 44. The stable build is now v. 43, and could be upgraded to the next version number as soon as this month.