When the Browser Grows Up

By | September 3, 2008

Google this week (eds: Tuesday 3/9/08) launched its own browser. Here Jeremy analyses its significance for the general user.

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Geeks have gotten very excited about the launch of Google’s own browser, called Chrome. But what does it mean for us ordinary mortals?

Well, in the short term, not very much. But further down the track, you can expect all sorts of things to happen that will blur the distinction between what is on your computer and what is on the Internet. This—overall—will be a good thing, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. But it may also get a bit messy.

Google have kept very quiet about this particular product, despite the fact they’ve been working on it for at least a couple of years. Surprisingly, they managed to keep it more or less under wraps until it was launched. They needed to: By launching their own browser they’re prodding the beast that is Microsoft. Expect open war to follow.

It’s not as if Microsoft still dominate the browser world. Well, they do, in the sense that most people who use Windows don’t bother to use anything other than the browser that comes with it, Internet Explorer. Indeed, a lot of users can’t: At the university where I teach even the teachers can’t download or install anything, so switching to other browsers is not an option for most people.

But there are plenty of better browsers out there: A Swedish company called Opera has been plugging away at its own browser, and, at least until a few years back, has introduced lots of cool new features that have gradually made their way into Internet Explorer (tabs, for example, where you can have more than one window open inside the same program.) And then there’s Firefox, an Open Source descendant of Netscape Navigator, which ruled the roost in the mid- to late 1990s until Microsoft crushed it like a bug. (Oh and Apple have their Safari, which also works on Windows, and is sleek and fast.)

Firefox has made some serious inroads into Microsoft’s market share, partly by harnessing the hard work and great ideas of volunteers, who push the edges of what is possible by developing extra bits called extensions that users can bolt on to the browser to increase its potential. These could be as simple as swishing your mouse to move back pages, to as fancy as using Firefox as a drawing and painting program.

Firefox, or the company behind it, makes its money by renting out to Google its search box—the little window in the top right of the screen—so that the default search engine points to its servers. This helped Firefox and made sense for Google, directing lots of traffic to them, and allowing them to build a close relationship with Firefox developers.

But now the search engine giant has realised this doesn’t go far enough. You see, Google isn’t just about search. It’s not just about entering a few words in a box and hitting Enter. It’s about accessing information. If you take that definition broadly enough, you can see that Google wants to place itself right in the middle of pretty much everything you do. Whether you’re working on a document with colleagues, trying to find a restaurant in Banglampoo, or setting up a corporate web site, you’re handling information. And if you’re doing it with Google, then you’re sitting just where they want you to be to take their ads.

Seen like that, it’s a natural next step to try to move into browsers. The browser—as revealed by its name—was once a fairly passive beast, designed for surfing and reading stuff. Now we spend as much time typing into our browser—email, blog posts, documents—as we do watching or reading stuff. We’re used to every web site we visit giving us the opportunity to comment or contribute. The browser is no longer a browser but—horrible word coming up—an interface.

Now, with a bit of tweaking, we can do all sorts of things inside the browser. Even without doing anything we can use it as a word processor, a spreadsheet, a mind mapping application; we can edit pictures and audio. With some extra bits installed we can even do some of this when there’s no Internet connection. Who needs Microsoft Word when you can do it all in a browser, for free?

Now you might be seeing why Microsoft isn’t happy. It doesn’t really care about having a browser as competition; it cares about Google—a behemoth with deep pockets and some very good programmers—having a browser.

Until now, the dreams of a browser replacing all the other programs on your computer was just that. The browser wasn’t really designed for all these extra things going on inside it. And while Firefox is an impressive beast (as is Opera), both depend on old machinery under the hood. Google realised this, and realised that someone needed to overhaul the browser so it could be a platform in its own right.

Now Google’s other products—its online applications, its  blogging tools, its drawing and mapping applications—can become part of your browser. More importantly, us users won’t need to install anything to move these applications from the web—the cloud, as it’s called, meaning anywhere but on your computer—to your PC. Something called Google Gears did that already, but it was something you had to install, whereas now it comes as part of the Chrome browser. In short, if you use Google Docs you can edit as easily online—where the document you’re editing sits in the cloud—to offline—where it sits on your computer.

It’s not necessarily going to be as smooth as one would like. There are teething problems—the version of Chrome I tested was wonderfully fast and elegant, right up until it started hogging my computer’s resources—and there’s bound to be some tension between Google and its erstwhile comrades-in-arms at Firefox. And yes, we should be a little alarmed that the already powerful Google can now have more access to our data.

But on balance it’s exciting. For you and I it means leaner, meaner applications that do what we want, where we want, and without us having to for them. As Dương Thành An, the Vietnamese founder of Evolus which developed the drawing application I mentioned above, puts it: What else do we need in our PC?” 

It means a new wave of innovation from developers—since Chrome is Open Source, meaning anyone can fiddle with it and add to it—and from Google’s rivals like Microsoft—who will be forced to come up with responses of their own.

So download it, give it a spin, and let me know how you get on.

©Loose Wire Pte Ltd.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a regular contributor on technology to the BBC World Service and elsewhere. His book-length guide to using computers, Loose Wire, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.