A deep fear of Microsoft drove Google to create its own Web browser, the company's cofounders implicitly admitted Tuesday, though each was careful never to mention the software giant by name. Instead, during a press conference, Google's leaders discussed the benefits of creating its own browser, while tip-toeing around the central issue at hand: The release of Chrome opens a new front in what is increasingly a heated battle with Microsoft for computer users.
"I wouldn't call Chrome the \[operating system\] of Web apps," Google co-founder Sergey Brin demurred after one-too-many Microsoft-oriented question during yesterday's press conference. "It's a very basic, fast engine to run Web apps. We'll see more and more Web apps of greater and greater sophistication, of the kinds of things that today are pretty challenging to do on the Web because of browser performance."
"Everything we do is running on the Web platform. It's very important to us that it works well," Google co-founder Larry Page added.
Google's explanation for Chrome is that it doesn't have to snag a significant amount of market share to be successful for the company. Instead, all it has to do is influence and inspire the makers of other browsers. If these other browsers--Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox primarily--improve enough along the lines of Chrome, then that's good for Google. Better Web browsers will lead to better Google Web application experiences and thus, eventually, to more revenues for the company.
OK, fine. But a big part of the thrust behind Chrome is to formalize the notion that Web applications are as capable and "real" as traditional desktop applications. So one of the built-in features of this new browser--a product, that by the way lacks a number of standard features found in competing browsers--is that you can turn any Web application--like Gmail, Google Calendar, or the Google Apps productivity suite--into desktop-like applications that are accessed via standard Windows shortcuts. The goal is to blur the line between traditional applications and Web applications.
And that brings us back to Google's Microsoft fixation. While the company was very careful yesterday never to explicitly mention Microsoft, Google is in fact very much aware that Chrome is reigniting an old debate, started in the mid-1990s days of Netscape--that the browser could replace Windows. At the heart of its decision to create a browser was a desire to not leave the underlying access point for its Web solutions in the hands of its biggest competitor. Google says it wants to go from being an Internet search company to being an Internet search, services, and applications company.
In the short term, other companies have more to fear from Chrome than does Microsoft. Mozilla, for example, has managed to seize almost 20 percent of the Web browser market from IE with its Firefox browser. But Chrome is based partly on Firefox technology, and Firefox users are exactly the kind of people who would be willing to try Chrome. That's not the case with most mainstream Web users, most of whom use IE. And other niche browsers, like Opera and Apple Safari, will likely continue their path to nowhere, with Chrome, Firefox, and IE snapping up the majority of users. The only question, of course, is what the breakdown will be. Will Chrome steal share from Firefox? IE? Or both?