Chrome – All Shiny and New?

In a new twist on the browser wars, which started in the mid 1990s when Netscape was the dominant Web browser, Google released a beta version of its new browser, Chrome.  Google said that the software, based on the same rendering engine as Apple’s Safari browser, will make Web browsing faster while making it easier to run Web-based applications.

This latest Google software offering is another shot fired at Microsoft.  The two companies already compete intensely in search engines (where Google holds a wide lead) and in desktop productivity applications (where Microsoft is firmly entrenched).  Chrome is intended to support a new generation of Web-based applications.

“We realized that the web had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive applications and that we needed to completely rethink the browser,” wrote Sundar Pichai, a Google vice president of product management, on Google’s Web site.  “What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications, and that’s what we set out to build.”

It’s important to view this less as renewed hostilities in the browser wars and more as part of a continued challenge to the hegemony of Microsoft’s desktop operating system, Windows.

Of course, Windows comes with its own browser, Internet Explorer and a descendant of Netscape, Mozilla Firefox, has captured ca. 20% of the market.

But with an increasing preponderance of Web-based applications, browsers are becoming more like operating systems as gateways for the software apps themselves.  To that end, each browser tab in Chrome operates as a separate process.  If one should crash or misbehave, others will, according to Google, remain accessible.  Google also built a new JavaScript engine, V8, which the company promises will speed up existing Web applications and support a new class of applications that will only run on Chrome (until the other browsers catch up, one would suppose).

In addition, search, one of the most important tools we use, is frequently accessed through a browser.  Internet Explorer comes with a toolbar that is preset for Microsoft’s search engine and Firefox has a search box that by default uses Google, but also will search Wikipedia, Yahoo, Amazon, and other major sites.  Chrome features a combined search and address bar in the apparent belief that users don’t know where they want to go.  In addition, Chrome nannys users; when opening a new tab, the user will see a page that includes snapshots of most-visited sites, recent searches, and bookmarks.  Sounds like a form of information overload torture to me; I hope this “feature” can be turned off.

There’s no question that Chrome will increase competition – and innovation – in the browser market, a market where the product is almost exclusively given away at no cost to the user.  Google has been working on Chrome for over two years while Mozilla and Microsoft combined have decades of experience in making and testing browsers.  Will knowledge workers and consumers even take the time to download another browser onto their computers?

A brief test of Chrome reveals great promise but it’s still in beta and lacking many capabilities taken for granted in a browser, including bookmark management and the ability to e-mail links and pages from within the browser itself.  We’ll circle back in a few weeks with an in-depth look.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

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