Google’s new Chrome Browser came out a few weeks ago to quite a bit of attention. It’s big news 1) because it’s from Google and 2) it brings back memories of the “browser wars”, and seems like it could potentially signal the next big battleground in the intense rivalry between Google and Microsoft.
I’ve downloaded Chrome and played with it a bit, but this isn’t intended to be a technical review of Chrome’s merits. It seems reasonably snappy, and has Google’s typical minimalist design philosophy, including a single box for multiple functions (search, address bar, etc.). Your personal preferences will decide whether you like that or not. It has some nice features such as tabbed browsing, which theoretically should prevent one bad browser window from crashing all open browser windows–much like when Windows became multi-threaded. Nice stuff, but doesn’t really fundamentally change the browser game. But technically it’s still a beta anyway (of course just about everything is with Google), and it will evolve over time–so it’s not really time to judge it from a technical perspective anyway.
What I want to do is to examine Chrome as a strategic move by Google with respect to the software and online worlds–what does it really mean, where will it take the market, and what are its chances for success?
Let’s take a look at some of the potential ways that Chrome could affect the marketplace:
A Better Browser
Of course, PR propaganda always will say that this is the “real” reason for bringing out a new product such as this. When I was at HP we used to call this “making a contribution to the market”. Google in particular often gets sanctimonious about this type of thing, with all their “do no evil” and saving the world stuff. Does the world really need another, better browser? Not sure. Firefox and Safari, to name two, are already probably technically superior to IE, and while they’ve made some inroads in the marketplace, they still trail Microsoft by a wide margin. But history tells us that competition is a good thing, and a step forward on major platform like a browser can certainly be thought of as a gateway to allow software innovation to develop faster. Having a company like Google enter the fray should increase rate of innovation that’s possible in the online market.
An Application Development Platform
This is the position that many pundits suspect may be the major impact of Google’s move. In their introduction, Google talked quite a bit about “remaking” the browser for Web 3.0, if you will. And a fresh approach does make sense, given that Internet Explorer was conceived long before serious online applications were envisioned for the Web. With SaaS and Web 2-3-4.0 currently all the rage, having a browser platform designed from the bottom up to accommodate online software applications should be a good thing. If it’s all it’s cracked up to be, this could conceivably be a game-changer and a real threat to Microsoft. The key here is how much of the talk about re-architecting the Browser is real, and how much is hype. This will become more apparent over time as Chrome is further developed, and application developers take a look to see if there truly are features they can take advantage of to build better online apps for users.
An Additional Way To Track User Behavior
This is one of the more cynical viewpoints as to the major motivation behind Google’s introduction of Chrome. The thinking is that this is one more insidious move by Google to “big brother” your online activity. It’s no secret that Google uses web activity data they collect by various means (such as Google Analytics) to fine-tune their advertising business. Certainly owning browser could be seen as the “holy grail” towards creating a complete characterization of online activity. What else might they use this data for, in addition to fine tuning their advertising platform? That’s the question and concern.
A Way To Drive More Search Traffic And Adwords Revenue
Along the same lines as the bullet point directly above, owning the browser could be seen as the ultimate in terms of driving web traffic toward Google’s Adwords online advertising. The first thing you see upon downloading Chrome is the opportunity to switch to Google as your default search engine. How much will they do in this regard, either subtly or in a straightforward manner? As stated above, at a minimum, it gives them the opportunity to make Google the default search engine, which is critical to their base business. Only time will tell how much of a factor this is in Google’s Chrome strategy.
A “Real” Competitor Aimed At Microsoft IE To Make Them Defend Their Turf
Of all the bullet points I’m raising, this is the one I’m most sure of. Google and Microsoft are locked in one of those classic death matches for online software supremacy, and don’t miss an opportunity to tweak their arch-rival and make them sweat a bit. Going back to the application development argument above, there is a feeling that Chrome could serve as the basis for a suite of online Google apps to threaten obsolescence for Microsoft’s desktop software business. I don’t doubt that Google may try to do this. But even if from a technical and marketing perspective Chrome is only a modest success, it almost certainly will get Microsoft’s attention and cause them to expend resources and management attention on browser technology, to an extent they may not have preferred.
Chrome is intriguing, but it’s too early to tell for sure what the major reason is for this Google initiative. They may not even know for sure themselves at this point. But the product, and more importantly the move itself, will likely make Microsoft react. The ensuing competition should be all good for the user and developer communities, as long as it doesn’t take us toward another tiresome and market-paralyzing “platform API” war. I’ll be following the future development of Chrome closely to see where it takes us–how about you?