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The Second Browser War
The second browser war
Read and listen to this short report from The Economist about the release of Google's new web browser Chrome.
The full version of this Economist report is available here:
along with many other extremely useful audio and video resources.
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, 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, especially its 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, it is through Google Docs, its online word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. But these, so far, have few users.
Google’s fear has always 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 were disadvantaged. This, after all, is how Microsoft behaved in the 1990s, when it crushed Netscape, an early pacesetter in the browser business.
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Microsoft’s fear, by contrast, has always been that computing might move from having the operating system as a platform for applications to running on 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 in a rival web browser to Explorer, called Firefox. An open-source project (ie, one 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 second-largest browser after Explorer, 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, with a few exceptions, run on the web and are reached 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 an oh-so-Google 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. If one app goes down, it takes only that tab with it, not the whole browser or surfing session. Chrome even works offline. And with few menus and little visual clutter, it is simple.
This 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 turn Chrome directly into money. 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.” All Google wants is ever more people doing ever more things on the web—preferably using its own apps—and peace of mind that nobody can interrupt this. Not even Microsoft.
Sep 4th 2008 | SAN FRANCISCO
From The Economist print edition as printed online here:
For more on this topic with an interesting analysis of Google's business model read
Google’s Goal: Free Hotdogs Not World Domination
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