Google’s new web browser is its most direct attack on Microsoft yet
SEVERAL years ago, Silicon Valley was rife with rumours that Google, then primarily a search engine, might be building a new web browser to rival that of Microsoft, called Internet Explorer (IE), or even an operating system to rival Microsoft’s Windows. Google mocked those rumours and they died down. But if Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, is to be believed, the speculation itself made him think that “maybe it’s not a bad idea”. And so this week Google did launch a new browser, called Chrome, that is also, in effect, a new operating system. The rumours, says Mr Brin cheekily, “just happened to migrate from being false to being true.”
Chrome amounts to a declaration of war—albeit a pre-emptive one, in Google’s mind—against Microsoft. So far, Google has been coy about admitting the rivalry (whereas Microsoft’s boss, Steve Ballmer, is obsessed with it). In web search and advertising, Google dominates roughly as Microsoft does in operating systems and office applications. To the extent that Google has challenged Microsoft’s core business at all, it is through its web-based word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. But these, so far, have few users.
Google’s fear has been that Microsoft might use its grip on people’s computers and browsers to tweak the default settings so that Google’s search engine and other services might be disadvantaged. This, after all, is how Microsoft behaved in the 1990s, when it crushed Netscape, an early browser.
Microsoft’s fear, by contrast, has been that computing as a whole might move from the operating system as a platform for applications to the web (or “cloud”). This is why it attacked—also pre-emptively, in its mind—Netscape and landed in antitrust court.
As Google rose to dominate the web during this decade, it therefore invested a lot of energy into a rival web browser to IE, called Firefox. An open-source project (whose code can be altered by anybody), Firefox comes from a foundation, across the street from Google’s offices, that happens to be based on the remnants of the old Netscape. Google’s engineers contribute code to Firefox and pay the foundation a share of advertising when people search Google in the browser’s toolbar. Thus Firefox rose to become the largest browser after IE, with almost 20% of the market.
But Google concluded that even Firefox could not protect it against Microsoft. It began to define its business as “search, ads and apps”, where the apps (applications), with a few exceptions, run on the web and are accessed through a browser. So Google decided to build a browser from scratch, explicitly for those fledgling services, from word processing to snazzy virtual worlds.
Chrome, which it launched with a cheeky comic book instead of a press release, is the result. It is based on tabs, each of which runs independently of the others for security, speed and stability. It even works offline. It is, in short, the scenario that Microsoft has dreaded ever since Netscape. As Arnaud Weber, a Google engineer and one of the characters in the comic book, says in a speech bubble: “We’re applying the same kind of process isolation you find in modern operating systems.” It is a geek’s way of saying that developers and consumers may soon stop caring about the operating system on their own hard drive altogether.
Ingeniously, Chrome itself need not take a lot of market share to fulfil Google’s objectives. Google does not expect to sell or otherwise “monetise” Chrome directly. Like Firefox’s, Chrome’s source code is free for anybody to change and improve, and even for rival browser-makers to incorporate. That could even include Microsoft. As Mr Brin says, “we would consider it a success” if the next version of IE were “built on Chrome, or even if it were just a lot better as a result of Chrome.” Google wants ever more people doing ever more things on the web, and peace of mind that nobody, not even Microsoft, can interrupt that.