Google seeks route around Microsoft with Chrome

Google sees its open source Chrome browser as the doorway for broader use of its Web-based applications

Google's surprise announcement of a new browser, Chrome, via a Web comic book could prove to be another game-changing development for the Internet in the coming years.

The browser presents a serious challenge to companies such as Microsoft and Apple, which hope their Web browsers will be the predominant ones used on the Internet and a gateway to more of their products.

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With Chrome, Google is promising people faster browsing, better security, and compatibility across multiple operating systems. Google ultimately sees Chrome as the doorway for broader use of its Web-based applications, which threaten the desktop-based software that has traditionally been Microsoft's domain.

Google published a 38-page comic book describing Chrome's features, a comprehensive view of what Google thinks people will want from a browser. Google's announcement of Chrome "reads almost like an operating system release, not a browser release," said David Mitchell, senior vice president for IT research at Ovum.

The company has also taken a new approach to dealing with JavaScript, the coding language used to create more interactive Web pages and Web services. Google has created its own virtual machine for processing JavaScript faster. It means Web services such as Gmail will, in theory, work faster.

But JavaScript can also be buggy on some Web pages and cause a browser to crash. Google says Chrome can manage that problem better, too. Tabs -- a common feature in browsers -- allow multiple Web pages to be opened. But if one of those tabs encounters bad JavaScript, the whole browser will crash. Google said that Chrome isolates those tabs so if one crashes, it doesn't crash the whole application.

Google has also incorporated its Gears toolkit into Chrome. Gears lets developers create applications that can be used offline, synching data with Web services when Internet access is available again. It's a key part of Google's strategy to embellish its Web-based applications with the convenience of desktop applications.

Chrome also takes a new approach to security. Pop-ups -- annoying boxes triggered by JavaScript -- will be isolated to an individual tab. Chrome can also block malicious programs on the Web from installing themselves on a PC's hard drive, using a technique known as sandboxing.

Google will make the code for Chrome open source. "It's in our interest to make the Internet better, and without competition, we have stagnation," said the comic book character representing Chris DiBona, Google's open source programs manager.

The introduction of Chrome raises concern that Google could use its browser -- much as Microsoft did with Internet Explorer -- to lock users in by offering features that are difficult for other browser makers to replicate.

However, it's not likely Google would risk incurring the backlash from people who advocate that Web-browser makers should conform to agreed-upon standards to make Web pages work for everyone, regardless of the browser they're using, Mitchell said.

Another question is how Chrome will impact Mozilla's open-source Firefox browser project and Opera Software's Opera browser. Google isn't unhappy with Firefox, as the two companies have a harmonious relationship, said Tristan Nitot, president of Mozilla Europe.

At the end of August, Microsoft's share of the browser market was 72.15 percent and falling, with Firefox holding 19.73 percent and Safari 6.37 percent, according to Hitslink, a service of Net Applications.

Google's Chrome project likely sprouted after worries over how Internet Explorer (IE) handles Google's applications since Explorer's development is controlled by one of its chief competitors, Nitot said. More than 70 percent of Internet surfers use IE, primarily because it ships with the all-dominant Windows operating system.

"Right now Google is delivering their services mostly through IE, which is an uncomfortable situation considering that IE is not very good in terms of performance," Nitot said.

Microsoft, which recently released the second beta version of IE 8, said people will pick its browser for its privacy and data control features. "The browser landscape is highly competitive, but people will choose IE 8 for the way it puts the services they want right at their fingertips," according to Dean Hachamovitch, Explorer's general manager.

But where does that leave Mozilla's Firefox? Mitchell said Chrome will likely just help fuel confidence open-source software development, where code is not kept secret as it is in companies such as Microsoft and is open to peer review.

"It's a huge mistake to view this as a head-to-head battle of Firefox versus Chrome," Mitchell said. "There's plenty of space for more consumer choice. If it [Chrome] gains market share, it will take it from all around."

CIOs will probably be open to letting users install Chrome as enterprise applications become less dependent on a specific browser to run, Mitchell said. "The category of applications that are only supporting IE are declining anyway," he said.

Opera spokesman Tor Odland said Google the introduction of Chrome is fine as long as it adheres to Web standards. Apple declined to comment.

(Mikael Ricknas in Stockholm and Peter Sayer in Paris contributed to this report.)

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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