Commentary: Should Google Be In The Browser Biz? You Bet

Having its own Web entry is crucial for growth -- and for keeping Microsoft at bay

Most folks figured the "browser wars" had gone the way of Beta vs. VHS. But recent moves by Google Inc. (GOOG ) have sparked speculation that the search giant could enter the browser business and restart competition in a market dormant since Microsoft Corp. (MSFT ) squashed Netscape in the '90s. Consider the evidence. In recent months, Google has hired techies with browser-building experience from the likes of Microsoft, Sun Microsystems (SUNW ), and BEA Systems. In addition, the company in April reserved the Web address Although insiders say no browser is imminent, analysts believe it's under strong consideration.

While eager investors have driven up Google's stock 55% since its August initial public offering, many analysts believe that to cement its long-term prospects Google should get into the browser business. Doing so would help it take on Microsoft on its own turf, move beyond search, and, by expanding its role as a point of entry to the Internet, allow it to sell more ads. "Developing a browser could be a necessity," says Mark Mahaney, an analyst at American Technology Research Inc. Here's why Google should forge ahead on a browser -- and the sooner the better:

EXPANDING WITHOUT CLUTTER Google has won adoration for a no-frills, fast-loading Web page that comprises just 37 words. But with Google moving beyond search into services such as e-mail, online groups, and photo management, it faces a dilemma: how to promote its services without cluttering up its search page.

A browser is the logical solution. Beyond the standard buttons such as "back" and "reload," browsers typically display a toolbar for quick access to everything from bookmarked sites to often-used desktop software. A Google-flavored browser could highlight its range of services and bring them together without forcing the search giant to junk up its site with logos and text.

Beyond acting as a one-stop shop for Google offerings, the browser would help the company make its various products work together seamlessly. For example, a Google browser could notify you when you receive an e-mail from certain people.

COLONIZING THE PC This is required real estate if the company is to achieve what many feel is an important future step in search: organizing data on people's hard drives, from pictures to Word files to e-mail. A browser could provide a launchpad to search these new realms, potentially yielding Google millions of additional search results around which it could sell its contextual ads.

True, Google is already establishing a presence on the desktop with a toolbar -- software that attaches to existing browsers and provides instant access to Google search and other services. The company says downloads of its toolbar number in the millions. But most Web surfers are unaware that such toolbars exist, and a Google-branded browser could eclipse that. Consider that in the past two weeks people downloaded 2.5 million copies of an open-source browser built by a little-known outfit called the Mozilla Foundation. That shows how much demand there is for an alternative to Microsoft's browser. If Google were to put its brand behind an effort like that, just imagine the potential.

STAVING OFF REDMOND Microsoft owns about 94% of the browser market and is moving steadily into search. Sure, the software giant hasn't taken much advantage of the traffic delivered to its sites from buttons built into Internet Explorer. Nor has it marketed a feature that lets users simply type search queries into the browser's address box, taking them directly to an MSN search-results page. But some analysts say that once Microsoft puts it all together, Google could be sorry.

Besides, much of the grunt work required to build a browser is already done. Google could simply piggyback on Mozilla's open-source technology, then devote its resources to customizing the browser for Google's myriad services. "If Google doesn't have a browser in three years, it could be a big hole in their business," says Mahaney. It's a no-brainer.

By Ben Elgin

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