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All about ... Google Chrome

The internet giant has delivered its Chrome browser.

Google...new Chrome browser launched
Google...new Chrome browser launched

"Do not trust Google Chrome," one emotional contributor to a CNET online forum wrote last week, adding pithily, if somewhat predictably: "Chrome is spyware masquerading as a browser."

Quite. As Google celebrated its tenth birthday last weekend, for many observers, it has acquired the bete noire status formerly accorded to the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Bill Gates. You have to suspect that they (the observers, that is) tend to inhabit a James Bond-style imaginative world where some unreconstructed rogue or another is always attempting to achieve world domination.

And it's true that Chrome does sound like the sort of shiny metallic name that a Bond villain might come up with. In which case, the imperative is clear: you shoot first and ask questions later. It's interesting, however, that in this case, paranoid knee-jerk responses appeared to comprise a small minority.

Most reviewers grappling with Google's new browser, launched on Monday 1 September, concentrated on functionality and were commendably fair and open-minded. Chrome is designed to be fast and easy to use and will be resistant to crashing under the increasingly heavy Javascript demands of future generations of web applications. It also features the minimalist design virtues that made Google's rise to dominance in the search market a thing of aesthetic beauty as well as technical finesse.

Many pointed out niggling flaws - but functional imperfections are understandable given that this is a beta version, released in haste by Google following a leak of its plans. And if the company's technological track record is anything to go by, those flaws will soon be addressed.

You don't have to be an arch- conspiracy theorist, however, to acknowledge that functionality is but a part of this story. When pressed last week, Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, admitted that there was a "defensive component" to this latest initiative - a masterful understatement if ever there was one.

And, of course, what with attack being the proverbial best form of defence, it's not being overly melodramatic to conclude that we've entered the second (or, indeed, third, if you count the launch of Firefox in 2004) great browser war.

The first was concluded with awesome brutality. Before August 1995, Netscape had the market pretty much to itself. Then Microsoft launched Windows 95, incorporating Internet Explorer 1.0 - and by the end of the year had also launched 2.0 as a free download to all Windows users.

By 1998, the war was effectively over and Explorer was well on the way to becoming the world's pre-eminent browser - going on to achieve a global market share peak of just over 95 per cent during 2002. Netscape is now an AOL-owned news and entertainment portal.

So this latest confrontation could turn out to be the mother of all battles. Microsoft may have lost someof its sense of direction in recent years - but it is hardly a pushover.

1. According to figures from Nielsen, Internet Explorer (including a version licensed to AOL) has a UK market share of 83 per cent, Firefox has 12 per cent and the Yahoo! browser is on 4 per cent. The others, including Apple's Safari, all register below the 1 per cent mark. With minor variations, this pattern is by and large replicated in most major markets - though in the US, Firefox and Safari both claim slightly better shares than in the UK.

2. Although Google has stormed to commercial dominance of the internet in less than a decade, it continues to fret about the potential weaknesses in its long-term strategic position. After all, its search sites are heavily reliant on Microsoft's operating systems and Windows software to provide their delivery platform. Google's future, thus, depends on the continued goodwill of a rival. In the future, as Microsoft's ambitions in search and display markets become more coherent, this may no longer be a symbiotic relationship - and there are any number of ways in which Microsoft could "squeeze" Google if push comes to shove.

3. Google's long-term goal is to reduce Microsoft's role to that of a systems utility software provider while Chrome effectively becomes virtually an operating system for a large number of users. That's what lies beyond Google's decision to develop Chrome as an open source product whose applications developers can easily work with - and it is particularly slanted towards future developments in mobile too.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

Rival browsers

- Many believe that Google can be relied upon to blow away Explorer if it so chooses; others say that the realistic extent of its medium-term ambitions will be to target Firefox users.

- But there are many sceptics too - especially as there isn't a noticeably huge quantum leap in technology here. When Google entered the search engine market a decade ago (Google Inc was incorporated on 7 September 1998), its established rivals were, quite frankly, very poor.

- Judith Lewis, the search director at i-level, comments: "The (software literate) people who are into open source have probably already shifted to Firefox. For the rest of the market, there's a lot more inertia to overcome. These days, people are not inclined to download things they don't have to."

Advertisers

- The big issue for the search market is the increased area of the screen "real estate" that Chrome offers, thanks to its clutter free layout. That could be a good thing.

- But on the downside, there's a long-term competition issue here too. Craig Walmsley, a consultant at AKQA, explains: "If Chrome replaces the desktop, Google will have removed any possible threat to its search marketing dominance, and may expand that dominance to display advertising also. Google could potentially collect data on every action a user takes online.

- "With marketing spending continuing its inexorable shift to digital, having one company control access to the online customer will generate very significant concerns for marketers - brands may effectively end up paying a levy for every advertising interaction online."

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