A new superpower just entered the long-simmering browser war: today, after years of secret work, Google, the world's most popular search engine, will unveil its own browser, called Chrome.
The software, which is in beta, will be distributed for free to PC users in more than 100 countries via Google's blog. (Mac and Linux versions are in the works.) Word of the impending launch accidentally leaked on Monday, when Google mistakenly sent a comic-book-style announcement detailing Chrome to a blog.
"On the surface, we designed a browser window that is streamlined and simple," Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Linus Upson, engineering director, wrote on the official Google blog on Monday afternoon. "To most people, it isn't the browser that matters. It's only a tool to run the important stuff the pages, sites and applications that make up the Web. Like the classic Google homepage, Google Chrome is clean and fast. It gets out of your way and gets you where you want to go."
Chrome looks like a "best of" browser, incorporating and in some cases, improving upon a few of the most popular features of its competitors. Like Firefox's "awesome bar," Chrome's search blank keeps track of keywords in a user's previous visit, allowing one to type in, say, "baseball" and pull up any Web pages he'd visited recently that pertain to that sport. Also like Firefox, Chrome supports tabs as a way to open and keep track of multiple windows, though Chrome puts the tabs above the search blank rather than below it. There's also a privacy function which bloggers have dubbed the "porn mode" that allows users to privately visit sites without Google or their History files recording the visits.
That feature, by the way, is also included in Microsoft's newest version of its popular browser, IE 8, which went into its second beta release last week.
With a 72% share of the browser market, Microsoft is the real target here. Far from sinking into irrelevance, desktop computer browsers have continued to evolve and become even more integral to how we use the Web. Whoever controls that experience can leverage it to the detriment of website owners and in ways that must keep the Google guys up at night. For instance, IE 8 makes it far easier to find something without going through a Google search. When you search within IE 8, you're presented with a number of buttons, such as Search Yahoo! or Search Wikipedia.
"It shouldn't be a big surprise to anyone that Google's doing this," said John Lilly, CEO of Mozilla, the company behind Firefox, the world's second most popular browser. Noting the aggressive direction that Microsoft is taking, he added, "I think Google has some nervousness around issues of control and ownership."
Over the long term, Firefox, which recently released its 3.0 version downloaded more than 8 million times, a record could be collateral damage in the browser wars. Google has long been a patron of its open-source browser, and pays a kind of "click back" to Mozilla for directing its 200 million users to Google. In 2006, the last time Mozilla released its numbers on the subject, Google had paid the company $65 million. "It's north of that now," Lilly said. He noted that Google recently extended its relationship with Mozilla until 2011, which gives it plenty of time to maneuver. Likewise, as powerful as Google is in the search world, it only has, by some measures, around 135 million monthly users a far smaller population than Firefox's users.
Indeed, getting people to actually download software, even free software, is a lousy business and takes lots of experience. Lilly, who is usually a calm fellow, appeared to be especially unperturbed by Google's encroachment into Firefox's terrain. "The most surprising thing about Google's announcement today was this everyone has been talking about the mobile future," he said. "But desktop browsing is the really contested field right now."