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Chrome Browser First Impressions

Should you care about Google's new browser?

Joel P. Bruckenstein, 09/25/2008

In non-technical circles, at least the ones I interact with, Google's release of the new Chrome Web browser was met with indifference. "Why do I need another web browser?" one friend asked. Another, a Mac devotee said "I'm very happy with Safari. What's the big deal?"

While the initial beta release of Google Chrome is far from flawless, I think that the world just might need another Web browser, and the release of Chrome might be important to all of us. Without getting too technical, I'll try to explain why Chrome could be significant and why you might want to test it out; if not today, then at some point in the near future.

First of all, in the realm of technology in particular, competition is a good thing. It tends to help accelerate innovation. Case in point: Netscape. There was a time when Netscape was a significant factor in the Web browser space, but by the turn of the century, Microsoft's Internet Explorer had become the most widely used browser. In fact, by 2002 Internet Explorer had a commanding (approximately 95%) market share. Perhaps since there was little competition at the time, the pace of innovation dropped noticeably when Internet Explorer went virtually unchallenged by other browsers.

Things began to change shortly after the release of Firefox in November 2004. Firefox was innovative, as it continues to be. Over the last few years it has offered speed, stability, tabbed browsing, improved security, and much more, serving as an open-source alternative to Microsoft. Supported by some powerful friends, including Google, Firefox, in a few short years has managed to gain a 20% market share. In addition, the renewed popularity of Apple's computers has led to Safari, Apple browser, grabbing a roughly 6.5% market share (there is a Windows version of Safari as well). This competition has forced Microsoft to respond with updates to IE in an effort to slow, if not halt the erosion to their browser market share.

But if Internet Explorer's market share has been steadily decreasing, why did Google decide to create its own browser now? It appears to me that Google executives might have thought that the pace of innovation within the browser niche was not sufficient. There are also indications that it wants to nudge browser innovation in a different direction.

I suspect that to Google, current browser design is outdated. Browsers were originally designed primarily to view static Web pages. Since the advent of the modern browser, however, much has changed. We now spend a good portion of our day working within a Web browser. Among the common tasks now performed online: e-mail, chat, collaboration, viewing videos, social networking, online applications such as CRM, word processors, spreadsheets, and much more. If someone was to design a new browser from the ground up to optimize the way we work online today, surely they would build something different than what we are used to today, and that's what Google is attempting to do.

Clearly, one theme of Chrome is to get out all the bloat. In fact, the name "Chrome" itself is a little bit of a geeky inside joke. In software developer lingo, "chrome" describes all of the things like boxes and menus that are not part of the main screen. So the Chrome browser is really "anti-chrome" because it tries as much as possible to do away with all of the "chrome."

Google's design minimizes the number of menus, buttons, toolbars, and other stuff. This leaves more screen real estate devoted to content, which is what most people want to see. Chrome also more closely resembles to relationship between a computer's operating system and desktop applications, and this too is clearly by design. In fact, Google cofounder Sergey Brin said at a recent news conference: "I think it is a very basic, fast engine to run Web apps."

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