I was excited today to download Google’s new “Chrome” Web browser. Even I, a Microsoft technology die-hard, was intrigued by the idea of more competition in the browser space. While I am impressed with what I have seen so far in the Beta of IE8, I still feel that, viewed over roughly the last decade, Microsoft’s browser has changed so little as to be an embarrassment. Microsoft does a lot of things, and they have to prioritize. I suppose it’s not surprising that an area in which it has little competition has been the place where it has chosen to coast. Only stiff competition will push Microsoft out of complacency, it seems. And so Chrome is potentially good for IE.
I downloaded Chrome, and surfed with it for several hours. My initial experience was a good one. First, the thing felt very clean. There is no overload of toolbar buttons, menus, tool tips and dialog boxes. Chrome’s merging of the address bar and the search box into a single input control is intuitive; in fact it almost seems obvious, after the fact. Another nice touch: instead of a home page or a collection of home pages in different tabs, Chrome provides a thumbnail gallery of recently visited sites. Chrome’s ability to create shortcuts (on your desktop or QuickLaunch toolbar) that go directly to Web applications and bring them up in stand-alone, normally-framed windows, without all of the browser UI paraphernalia, is nice as well.
Of course, these features are really pretty easy to implement (the merged search and address bar with auto-complete being somewhat an exception). And given that the guts of Chrome’s rendering engine is essentially the WebKit Open Source code base, Google’s attempt at an innovative re-think of the browser seems more like a simple ergonomic skin on top of Safari.
That is Google’s Holy Grail, and it’s essentially the same agenda championed by Netscape some 10 years ago, with the same goal: fashion the browser into an operating system (or at least an application substrate) in its own right, and thus render Windows insignificant. Netscape failed, magnificently, at making this happen. But they also lacked cash and a real business model (a common problem for technology companies in that era). Google, meanwhile, has tons of cash, a very good business model in classified advertising, and a vested (perhaps even desperate) interest in delivering on this old challenge.
Google won’t wither away the way Netscape did, but it may hit a real cul de sac in its growth if it can’t hurt the Windows franchise in a substantive way. Can Google do it? Odds are against it, but it’s not impossible. If Google can’t do it, might it at least wage a costly war of attrition on Microsoft’s market share and caché, wherein Microsoft’s customers get cranky and restless (and slow to upgrade or renew their enterprise license agreements)? I think that’s a strong possibility.
Microsoft can fight back successfully, but it has to get hungrier and scrappier. Summer’s over; the Yahoo deal is comatose, if not dead. Microsoft needs to foster some indigenous competitive momentum on the IE team and it needs to do it now. It has Google to thank for giving it a swift kick in the rear. Let’s see if that action yields meaningful results.