This won't be like the last browser war. When Google (GOOG) unveiled its Web browser, Chrome, on Sept. 2 the immediate buzz was that the bruising battles played out between Netscape and Microsoft (MSFT) in the late 1990s, were back on.
Google, though, has much bigger ambitions. The goal, say Google execs, is not merely to win share of an existing market, but also to change the nature of Internet browsing—and the way we use computers. If Chrome works as planned, it will lead much of computing from the desktop—Microsoft's domain—toward remote data centers. These, in the tech industry, are collectively known as the cloud. Google runs the biggest and most efficient data centers on earth, and moving much of the world's computing to them is at the heart of the company's strategy. "Google really believes the future of the Web is running applications on the Web," says Danny Sullivan, who runs Calafia Consulting, a Web consulting firm. "They want to be leading the charge."
Microsoft begins this battle with an enormous head start. Its Internet Explorer dominates the browser market, with nearly a three-quarters share. Microsoft is also launching its latest upgrade, IE8, loaded with new features—including a couple that could affect Google's business. One makes it easier for users to block information that helps Google deliver more relevant ads. Google's Chrome, by contrast, is bare-bones. Its power, say Google engineers, will come from its ability to run applications faster and more securely, especially those that are handled outside the PC, on the cloud. Unlike Google's top-secret search algorithms, Chrome is open-source software others can examine and even modify.
Google execs say they developed the browser, in part, for internal use. Their engineers constantly work on Web applications such as Gmail and YouTube. And they were crashing the traditional browsers, which are more oriented toward viewing Web pages. So two years ago, Google began work on Chrome.
Now, by offering it to the public for free, Google hopes to encourage people to run more applications, like word processing, spreadsheets, and video editing, on the Web. If Chrome sparks this trend, it doesn't even need massive market share to help Google. More activity on the Web, whether users arrive by Chrome or other browsers, provides Google with more places to collect data and to serve search ads. "Google believes that the more time people spend on the Internet and the more things they do on the Internet, the more that will benefit Google," says Nick Carr, author of the book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google.
Google is starting off in browsers ambitiously. The company is launching Chrome in 43 languages and 122 countries. Most of the magic is hidden inside the system. Google engineers developed a multiprocessor architecture, which means the browser can run separate applications in different tabs, or screens, at the same time. If one application crashes, the rest keep ticking. Another interesting feature: The search and address bar are one and the same. Type in what you're looking for, and Chrome delivers either the Web page or search results.
Early reviews point to drawbacks of the browser, including the lack of a way to manage bookmarks. Google concedes that it's following its familiar pattern of "launch early and iterate." John Lilly, chief executive of Mozilla, which makes the competing Firefox browser, says it's hard to gauge how popular Chrome can become. "I think that a lot of people will start experimenting right away with Chrome. But this is a story that will play out over weeks, months, and years, not hours and days."