I admit it, I find web browsers interesting. Installed on the MacBook I’m using to write this are Firefox 3, my browser of choice, its flirtatous cousin, Flock, Apple’s default browser, Safari, for those ‘no messing around’ moments, Camino, which is like Safari but without the corporate sponsorship deal, and Opera, which I’ve been checking in on for around eight years now to see if I like it. I don’t quite yet, but I can’t explain why.
Sounds great, right? But why are they doing it? Why is Google, a company whose mission is search, building a web browser, when there are so many good ones out there already? I think this is a smart move by Google for several reasons.
Firstly, Google depends on an open, standards-based Web and to get that browsers need to display pages in more or less the same way. Microsoft’s now well-known attempt to control the Web by making its browser, Internet Explorer, work ever so slightly differently, meant that websites have to be coded specifically for the Microsoft way of doing things. When IE6 accounted for 90 percent or more of web users, few designers could be bothered to code their pages for the standards-based alternatives. Had that continued, Google’s services, such as Maps, Gmail, Reader, Docs, and the rest, would have been essentially out of its control. Microsoft could have made them not work so well whenever it liked. So Chrome will add more competition to web browsing and help to enforce the move to web standards already supported by Safari, Firefox, and others.
Secondly, Google has been working for a while now on Gears. Gears is a plug-in for Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer, but it’s built in to Chrome. It allows users of web applications such as Zoho Office, Google Docs, and Remember the Milk, to edit their documents offline, in effect creating a new class of application that exists both on the desktop and in ‘the cloud’ at the same time. Firefox 3 has similar functionality built in, but Gears makes Google’s applications available across platforms and browsers.
Which brings me to my third point. Android, Google’s mobile phone operating system, is likely to include a version of Chrome, with Gears inside, as its browser, making online applications available on phones as well as desktop and notebook computers. Through Chrome, Google can ensure the openness of the Web wherever it is used and make its own products ubiquitous.
Chrome is fast and easy to use, though Windows only at the moment so I won’t be using it much just yet, but I don’t think this is about creating a newer, faster browser. Not really anyway. I think this is about Google making an unassailable place for itself on the Web. Google’s statements about openness are all true, but they are not driven by idealism. Without an open Web, Google could not continue and Chrome, which has the potential to knock chunks out of both Firefox and IE, is its attempt to make sure an open Web is what we get, though on its own terms.