[3 September 2008]
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
Most computer users don’t think much about their Web browser. The lion’s share just click on the small blue “e” (for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer) they see on their computer screen and off they go into cyberspace.
Google’s challenge in releasing a competing Web browser Tuesday is simple: to woo people away from the small “e’’ and use Google as the entryway to the Internet instead.
If Google’s Chrome browser succeeds in wresting away users from Internet Explorer, which dominates Web surfing with about 70 percent of the market, it will represent another big salvo in the biggest running war online. It’s Google vs. Microsoft in lots of ways already, including the competition for eyeballs to look at the advertising each company sells or manages.
Google now thinks it has another way, with Chrome, to battle Microsoft, and change the way people spend their time online.
By combining its strength - the Google search engine - with some new ideas on how a browser should work, Google wants to make finding what you want online as intuitive as just typing in the words.
My initial tests with Chrome on Tuesday hit a few speed bumps, but I liked what I saw.
Is it a game changer? No. It’s a browser. I have no real problems with Internet Explorer, which comes as basic equipment on all PCs. I like using the Safari browsers on the new Mac computer because with a finger swipe, I can easily enlarge the type on a page. And I like another competing browser, Mozilla’s Firefox, largely because of the way it helps me organize information as I go.
You have to download Chrome, unlike Internet Explorer, which comes with most PCs. The process is free, though, and should take only a few minutes.
The differences between the browsers are not the type that every consumer is likely to feel passionate about immediately.
Browsers and search engines are not as sexy as consumer goodies like a new digital camera or the iPhone, devices you can hold in your hand while marveling at all the cool things they do. A browser is simply a gateway to information.
Google may not have made the browser sexier, but it does make some things easier.
For one, it remembers what you like to visit more efficiently than Internet Explorer or Firefox, the second most used browser.
Consider a Web search for my favorite Chicago hot dog joint. When I started typing in “Hot,” the rest of the word “Hot Doug’s” immediately popped up because I’ve visited the site recently. With a click of the mouse I was checking on the specials. There was no need to start the search with www.
Google calls this combination of search and Web navigation the “omnibox,” and it is built into the browser.
In Internet Explorer, I had to type in www.hotdougs.com, while in Firefox it was www.hotd before the rest of the term popped up.
The more I browsed, the more Chrome learned.
The second time I typed in Facebook, I just needed to hit the “f” key and the social network appeared. For a site you visit often, Chrome will start finishing your queries after just a letter or three. This is nice.
On the other hand, most users on Explorer or other browsers simply “bookmark” favorite sites, a simple step, that takes you straight there with a mouse click.
Google takes bookmarking further, allowing a user to create a “shortcut” to a site, such as Facebook or a Web-based e-mail account, by putting a direct link onto your computer’s desktop display, on the quick launch tray at the bottom of your computer, or in your start menu. Other browsers can’t create a desktop icon.
In essence, Chrome takes a Web-based application and treats it like a program that resides on your computer.
“People don’t see the browser as substantive, but in the background. Google is planning on making it more substantive,” said Scott Kessler, an analyst at Standard & Poor’s Equity Research, who follows technology companies.
Google also said it is made browsing more stable.
Chrome uses tabbed browsing, like the latest version of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari. It is not a new feature, but a very convenient one.
A user can open a new tab on the same browser window to go to another Web site, but you don’t need to close the site you were on.
For example, on Firefox, I can have tabs open for my personal e-mail, an Internet radio station, my blog, a news site, or random sites I’m using to research a story. When I went to move from one site to another, I just click on the tab.
But if my browser crashes - it happens - all those tabs crash, too.
“Firefox has done a great job of restoring your session when you crash, but you still have that disruptive moment,” said Scott Robbin, president of Songza.com, a Chicago-based search engine for music. That means restarting the browser.
Google is “making each tab its own separate process. So if one tab crashes, you don’t crash your browser. That’s huge. Making each tab work independently will lower the frustration levels for many people,” Robbin said.
Google’s strategy in creating Chrome is pretty clear: to keep people using Google products as much as possible.
Kessler noted that Google only makes one product - search - that generates revenue, yet it continues to devote resources to creating new products without an apparent revenue model.
Much like its other products - spreadsheets, e-mail, word processing, maps - Google “starts with creating something people will use, building a base of users and then try to monetize it over time,” he said. “Ultimately, the hope is it will help direct people to other Google products.”
Brian Bolan, an independent analyst following tech companies, said Chrome, by itself, is not a threat to Microsoft because the browser, like the rest of Google’s offerings, is not targeted at corporations.
“This is for the consumer,” he said. But it highlights that “individuals can have an entire operating system via the Web that is developed by Google. Turn on your computer and you have everything you need,” noting all the other products that Google offers.
That is a threat to Microsoft, because it potentially weans users from a reliance on Microsoft and its software.
To download Chrome, go to www.google.com/chrome.
(Eric Benderoff writes about technology for the Chicago Tribune. Contact him at ebenderoff AT tribune.com.)