Google's Chrome Ups the Ante
Browser wars? On steroids. When Google (GOOG) announced on Sept. 1 that it was releasing its own Web browser, Chrome, the immediate buzz was that the bruising battles over browser domination, 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 to change the very 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 Google's lingo, are known as the "cloud." Google runs the biggest and most efficient data centers on earth, and moving much of the world's computing from desktops into its clouds is 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."
As this battle commences, Microsoft enjoys a towering head start. Its Internet Explorer dominates the browser market, with 75% share. And Microsoft is launching its latest upgrade, IE8, which is loaded with new features. Google's Chrome, by contrast, appears bare-bones. Its power, say Google engineers, will come from its ability to run applications faster and more securely, especially those hosted outside the PC, on the cloud. Unlike Google's top-secret search algorithms or the proprietary software it uses to carry out its searches, Chrome was born as an open-source system.
Asking More of Browsers
To understand what's new, think of Netscape, the browsing sensation 14 years ago at the dawn of the World Wide Web. The goal back then was simply to open and read Web pages. This is still important, of course, whether Web surfers are reading a story in The New York Times or checking out a friend's home page on MySpace. Most browsers today, including Mozilla Firefox and Apple's (AAPL) Safari, have grown to provide that Web browsing service.
Google, though, wants people to use browsers to do much more, particularly to run software applications, like word processing, spreadsheets, video editing, and conferencing. In Google's scheme, the browser is a gateway into the clouds, one that will eventually be tapped from anywhere—a PC, a mobile phone, perhaps even a television. And many of the applications available in the clouds, from calendars to e-mail, will likely compete directly with Microsoft's dominant suite of Office applications, including Excel and Outlook. Says Google co-founder Sergey Brin: "What we have is a lightweight engine for running Web applications that doesn't have the baggage of an operating system." Investors on Sept. 2 drove up Google shares nearly 2%, to 465.25.
Microsoft insists that even with the growth of cloud computing, users will still demand powerful applications and processing power in their own machines. At the same time, Microsoft has equipped its newest browser with features to throttle Google's exploding search market share. IE8 lets users block information that helps Google place more relevant ads, and it offers an improved Microsoft-oriented search toolbar. Still, the lofty promises surrounding Chrome do raise concerns at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. Dean Hachamovich, general manager of Internet Explorer, wonders if Google is embarking on a browser that will separate it, and its users, from the rest of Web traffic. "As they add things, what happens to everybody else?" he asks. "Is the Web going to become bifurcated? Trifurcated?"
An Ambitious Start
Google executives don't foresee such a schism, but instead predict that others may well borrow the most enticing features from the open-source program. The keys for Chrome, they say, are not a host of jazzy applications, but instead a system that provides speed, security, and easy-to-understand software applications. First-day reviews are mixed, with some reports of glitches and slow downloads. But if, with a few tweaks, Google can coax businesses and consumers to move more of their computing from the desktop onto the Web, the payoff in Google's core business—advertising—could be tremendous. A migration onto its clouds would provide 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, which it has been working on for two years, in 43 languages and 122 countries. (For now, it's available only for Windows machines—not Macs or Linux.) Most of the magic is hidden inside the system. Google engineers developed a multiprocessor architecture, which means that the browser can run separate applications in different tabs at the same time. So if one application crashes, the rest continue to perform.
Though rumors have swirled for years that Google was pursuing its own operating system or a browser, the venture still surprised many. That's because Google has had a close partnership with Mozilla, which manages the Firefox browser. Google's search pops up as Firefox's home page and is the main search engine.
During the past four years, Firefox has taken off, growing from zero market share to 20%, eating away at the dominance of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. As Firefox has taken off, so has Google's reach on the browser. So the fact that it went out on its own, rather than working with Firefox to overhaul the browser, underlines how important cloud computing is to Google's future. "[Firefox] had a set of priorities," says Sundar Pichai, Google's vice-president for product management. "We wanted to rethink the browser. You're better off writing something new…rather than imposing views on an organization like Firefox."
Early reviews point to drawbacks of the browser, including the lack of a way to manage bookmarks. Google admits that it's following its familiar pattern of "launch early and iterate." John Lilly, the chief executive of Mozilla, who has seen his share of upsets, says it's hard to gauge how popular Chrome can become. "The consumer Internet is a wild and wacky thing, 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."
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