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To most people today "chrome" probably sounds like a reference to the web browser; but at least in Microsoft contexts I've read "chrome" to refer to window decorations - like the border, maximize button, etc.

For example, here's a 2008 article which uses the term that way. Quote:

This document covers the design and some implementation details of getting WPF windows wrapped in custom chrome.

In that article there is no explicit statement for what "chrome" refers to, it seems to be taken for granted that the meaning is clear.

A 2004 article does explain its use of the term:

We've got an updated chrome (the style of the area that frames our content) ...

In that case it was referring to page elements on a website.


Note - The Google Chrome web browser apparently debuted in 2008. You'd think that if "chrome" wasn't commonly used to in the sense of a decoration by then it would never have caught on. The 2004 article above seems to support that.

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    I imagine it comes from the automobile industry - worthless non-functional ornamentation, frequently changed for each model year, designed to encourage sales and prop up the price. – another-dave Jul 13 at 16:41
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    IIRC the first Mozilla open source releases already used explicitly the term chrome. – ninjalj Jul 13 at 16:56
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    As an aside, Google chose the name, among other reasons, because "our design philosophy was 'Content, not chrome' - putting our focus on minimizing the amount of browser UI present, we felt it cheekily appropriate to name the browser 'Chrome'": quora.com/Why-is-Google-Chrome-browser-named-as-Chrome/answer/… – Jim Nelson Jul 13 at 17:25
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    Regarding the flag to close - isn't this a "computing history" question which is specifically on topic? retrocomputing.stackexchange.com/help/on-topic – UuDdLrLrSs Jul 13 at 19:06
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    @Raffzahn the original use of "chrome" for cars is quite literal, that's what some parts were made of (plated with). The meaning I had in the question was about its metaphorical use for software design. That's what seems on topic to me. If a similar metaphor is used in other contexts that's just something I'm ignorant of. But I'd never heard anyone refer to "chrome" in that sense for anything else, so I disagree that its a common term that also just happens to be used for software. – UuDdLrLrSs Jul 13 at 19:44
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According to the Jargon File:

chrome: n. [from automotive slang via wargaming] Showy features added to attract users but contributing little or nothing to the power of a system. “The 3D icons in Motif are just chrome, but they certainly are pretty chrome!” Distinguished from bells and whistles by the fact that the latter are usually added to gratify developers' own desires for featurefulness. Often used as a term of contempt.

This entry in the Jargon file appears first in the 2.1.1 version of June 1990; there's no entry for chrome in the 1980s versions, but it wouldn't surprise me if it was in use in the software industry quite a bit earlier.

The automotive origin is obvious; "chrome" features on late-20th-century automobiles don't affect performance at all, only aesthetics.

The "wargaming" connection is a little more obscure. A text on wargame scenario design, Scenario Designer's Handbook, refers to certain scenario-specific rules (SSRs) as "chrome":

The final type of SSR is added for flavor. These are known as "chrome" after a wargaming term that applied to rules with no large effect on play but added mainly for atmosphere:

A superfluous mechanism added to a game to add a feeling of theme. Like the chrome on a car, chrome isn't really necessary, but it may make the game more fun. Eample: in a WW2 infantry game, adding rules to cover the exceptional heroics of Audie Murphy.

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    While it doesn't predate the sources given above, Jakob Nielsen wrote an article in 2012 that supports/concurs with this summary, nngroup.com/articles/browser-and-gui-chrome — "Chrome is the visual design elements that give users information about or commands to operate on the screen's content (as opposed to being part of that content). […] Not coincidentally, "Chrome" is also the name of Google's web browser […] it was likely a visual analogy with the use of metal chrome on big American cars […] Similarly, in most modern GUIs, the chrome lives around the edges of the screen […]" – natevw Jul 13 at 19:29
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    As somebody who had classic cars from the 1950s and 1960s as a hobby since the 1980s and who is a native English speaker, I cannot recall ever hearing "chrome" used in a metaphoric sense to refer to other nonfunctional aesthetic things on a car. I only know it as chrome plating and extended to other polished reflective metal trim or plastic trim simulating reflective metal. That said, I'm not totally surprised that people not from car backgrounds might overextend the word or interpret it to have a wider usage than it actually has in the automotive world. – hippietrail Jul 14 at 5:21
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    Is there a public link to the 2.1.1 version of that file? – UuDdLrLrSs Jul 14 at 13:50
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    @hippietrail I have to agree, the Jargon File's distinction between the two seems to be lacking. My own experience has been that, in software development, "chrome" is pretty but of little-to-no utility, while "bells and whistles" are actual features added to attract users which may not be little-used in practice. Bells and whistles are often added to fill out a list of checkboxes on the back of the shelf box or in ad copy. – Jim Nelson Jul 17 at 0:35
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(Extending my previous comments into an answer...)

I'm not sure about "most people". I'm Gen X and I'd expect most people from my generation and before think of "chrome" as a bright shiny "silver" or "mirror-like" metal, mostly used on car exterior trim before the '80s but also on other metals that should both look nice and be protected from corrosion, such as taps/faucets. The web browser hasn't even existed for 15 years yet.

Anyway, the era and area when cars had the most chrome plating was 1950s America in the postwar boom. Initially just for corrosion protection on bumpers but went crazy with it by the end of the decade. In the '60s and '70s it went back to just corrosion protection on bumpers, door handles, mirrors etc and had all but disappeared by the beginning of the '80s.

Since I was a child I've had three main interests: language, classic cars (mainly '50s and '60s), and computers. The spot on the Venn Diagram where all three intersect is tiny, but we have found ourselves there (-:

In the automotive world I have only ever known "chrome" to be used in a literal sense. Short for the metal element "chromium". I have never heard of it being extended to mean any other kinds of nonfunctional aesthetic trim, add-ons, flourishes, etc. Not formally and not in slang either. It was extended slightly to cover other "silver" or "mirror-like" polished shiny metal or fake metal. This would include polished stainless steel mouldings and "plastic chrome" in interiors which I believe used evaporated aluminium. It was not even ever used for other colours of shiny metal such as gold or anodized pieces.

To check my suspicions I searched regular dictionaries and then slang dictionaries online. Most only have the literal sense of the metal. Wiktionary and one dictionary of slang also cover the GUI sense. The Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English, page 200:
chrome in slang dictionary

They give the date of 1991 as the first use they found and note that it was in another dictionary, Eric S Raymond's The New Hacker's Dictionary. In lexicography, sourcing a word only from another dictionary is not always seen to be as good as sourcing it from primary materials "in the wild". According to Wikipedia, the New Hacker's Dictionary is derived from the Jargon File, which is already mentioned in another answer here, and with a slightly earlier citation for "chrome" in the sense we're investigating. Now there is an original The Hacker's Dictionary by Guy L Steele that was published in 1983. So far I can't find its text online.

There is a chance it may have had such a slang use in another language. European cars only used chrome very sparingly. I checked German Wiktionary and found nothing but maybe a big official dictionary has something.

I suspect the information from the Jargon File and (New) Hacker's Dictionary is both right and wrong. I believe the step about "automotive slang" was a brand new folk etymology from the writer's imagination trying to fill the gap without evidence or experience of car enthusiast terminology. But the part about wargaming sounds very plausible to me. I know when I was getting into computers almost before colour and hi-res that many of the older guys were into wargames. I never took an interest.

My personal feeling, which I haven't found conclusive evidence of yet, is that I first saw the modern GUI sense when Netscape went open source after losing the Browser War to Internet Explorer. Whether it was in the original source, or whether it was tied to their XUL interface markup language during the Mozilla days before the Firefox branch became the main browser, I do not know. It is definitely used in XUL markup though:
"chrome" in XUL markup
Oh and MDN, the Mozilla Developer Network has a whole article on this sense of chrome, which links to its glossary entry, which in turn links to this definition on a "Nielsen Norman Group" site, whose author states they don't know the origin but speculates that it's: "likely a visual analogy with the use of metal chrome on big American cars during the 1950s".

I wasted a few hours trying to establish whether it was previously used in X11, Mosaic, Motif, etc but failed to track it down. Even when you try to search specific dates, both Google's browser and results with wrong dates are far too common. Perhaps it came from one of the graphical environments of one of the proprietary Unix variants?

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    The term "chrome" in the sense of window decorations seems to have been used in Netscape sources before Mozilla. See JWZ's CensorZilla, which contains certain excerpts from the source code. (Caution: contains naughty language.) – Dranon Jul 16 at 15:06
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It's quite possible the name originated in the 1970s when windowed computer systems (e.g. Xerox Alto) began to see development. If not in the 1970s, then almost certainly by some point in the 1980s, with numerous window systems (e.g. W, SunView, X11, etc.) being developed. I wish I still had my SunView manuals to see if the term was used therein.

It seems fairly obvious but unproveable that the term was in part inspired by chrome on automobiles from preceding decades.

Chrome was the decoration on windows which made them look nicer and/or more like a real object (skeuomorphic), but which had no functionality or callbacks attached -- at least back when I was writing SunView code.

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    There are quite a few Sun manuals and other documentation on the internet. I searched for an hour or two looking for "chrome" around the early '90s and didn't find anything except lots of things with wrong dates that were about Google's browser. But I don't know much about Sun so you might find stuff if you look that I couldn't find. – hippietrail Jul 15 at 11:11
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    @hippietrail Hey, good idea! I searched through a few SunView, OpenLook and NeWS manuals I could find online with publication dates of 1989 to 1991, and did not find any reference to "chrome". But that's just one family out of the many windows systems in use at that time. Maybe Motif or CDE invented the term? I don't know, but those are a couple more places to look. I have to be careful I don't spend too much time in this rabbit hole! ;-) – CXJ Jul 15 at 19:57
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    Yes my feeling was that it might've come from the X11 world which would include Motif and CDE but I only recall the term "widget" being used for every kind of GUI element. It was not a world I ever delved deeply into. I think I first saw it when Netscape went open source, noticed it at that time and wondered if it came from X jargon. Maybe in XUL or Mozilla days, definitely before Firefox became the main branch. – hippietrail Jul 16 at 3:37

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