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Sep 2 2008   5:21PM GMT

Chrome: A shiny Web browser from Google may just be the next global platform for running Web applications

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Chrome logoTechies and geeks returned from one last weekend of sun, sand and summer to find news of a disruptive change sweeping the online business world. Meet Chrome, Google’s new Web browser.

News of the announcement was leaked yesterday when Philipp Lenssen, an avid blogger of all-things-Google, received the comic book Google put together for the release and posted it, along with his first impressions. My director, ahead of the curve as usual , picked up on it right away and added it to WhatIs.com’s Buzzword Alert.

Google has since put up a high resolution of the Google Chrome comic book. I highly recommend going over and reading through the comic. Google put considerable time into clearly explaining the challenges faced by the designers of modern Web browsers with respect to memory bloat, rendering engines, Javascript threading errors and much more.

Since Lenssen broke the news, the tech blogosphere has of course been awash with reviews, opinions and speculation about what, exactly, Chrome will mean. Walt Mossberg posted a comprehensive review of Chrome in the Wall Street Journal, including speed and feature comparisons with Safari, IE 8 and Firefox. Rafe Needleman liveblogged the press conference introducing Chrome over at Webware. John Furrier colorfully blogged that the search wars just turned into the operating system wars. That’s true — except (as he notes) that Chrome goes far beyond search. SEO/SEM hounds and search engine watchers, however, will find Danny Sullivan’s thorough evaluation of Chrome’s search functionality quite useful.

Following below is own my two cents, both with respect to the browser itself and the significance of its introduction. First, however, I’ll let the video embedded below provide a quick introduction:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/iRqmfCFU_AI" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Obviously, Chrome has a lean, clean interface. This is Google, after all. Menus, dropdowns, extra bars and dialogs are largely stripped away. So what’s left?

The Web pages themselves. What a concept! I downloaded and installed the browser this afternoon without a hitch, imported my bookmarks and search history from Firefox and was off to the races. Chrome is quite speedy.

The address bar has been merged with the search field you’d see on the right in IE or FF. Firefox 3 includes a predictive search in this field already, so this isn’t ground breaking, but it is a clear recognitiion that search has become the default navigation method for most Web users. Enter your desired search terms and away you go.

Google is calling the new address field the “Omnibox,” a nod to its ability to incorporate “everything” you might need to explore. The Omnibox’s utility is another sample of Google’s secret sauce, in this case combining a record of your search and browsing history with Google’s own PageRank for given terms. The Omnibox is eerily good. With only a little use, it could predict precisely which page I was looking for after only a few characters were entered.

Chrome also features tabbed browsing, a key improvement introduced by iBrowse in ’99 and then popularized by Opera in 2000. Once Mozilla included it in Firefox, the feature took off and is now a default feature in Internet Explorer and Safari. Chrome expands the tabbed interface in a number of innovative ways, including grouping related tabs and designing each tab so that it acts as an independent browser. Bookmarks, the Omnibox, menubar icons and menus are all inside of the browser, which again frees up more space for displaying rendering Web pages.

The pop-up blocker and phishing or malware alerts also included in Chrome may not be innovative at this point but they’re certainly effective and useful. The private browsing mode, aptly called “Incognito.” (This clever feature name was perhaps made in hopes that it will avoid the “Porn Mode” moniker that has dogged a similar feature of IE 8, InPrivate.)

There’s another key development: Chrome may not be the fastest Web browser currently available but Google hopes that it will be the most stable for pages loaded with Javascript. In a Web 2.0 world ruled by AJAX, that’s no small thing. And anyone that’s used one of Google’s many online applications knows that a stable, reliable environment for this kind of scripting is crucial.

This hints at perhaps the most important detail of all, and one that I tipped my hat to in the title of this post. Microsoft made an early bid for Internet dominance in the infamous browser wars of the 1990s by including Internet Explorer in each copy of Windows. Despite the Justice Department’s successful antitrust suit, IE continues to have upwards of 75% of the world’s browser share. Firefox has made inroads on this market share, to be sure, and the most recent version of Mozilla’s browser has been the best option around for speed, privacy, safety and usability since its introduction this summer, following close upon the success of Firefox 2.

Now it’s Google’s turn.

Google’s introduction of its own browser has the potential to upset the market in a way that no other company can, simply because of Google’s ability to promote the download and use through its various Web properties. As Google’s various Web applications and cloud computing architecture continue to mature, the Web itself can develop into an operating system. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Sun’s vision of network computing in the 90s using Java popularized such a concept long ago. Vastly improved broadband connectivity, viable Web-based apps and an Internet technology giant flush with revenue from the world’s best advertising platform change the dynamic a bit, of course. Google built its own Javascript engine to improve performance and, crucially, integrated Google Gears with Chrome to allow true offline access to its various Web applications. That adds up to something that distinctly resembles a fully-fledged desktop operating system and productivity suite.

While it’s true that consumer and enterprises haven’t been making a run on thin clients running on Linux quite yet, the potential to further erode Microsoft’s dominance of the operating and desktop productivity software markets is embedded within Chrome. I’m far from the only writer prognosticating on this count, of course. Michael Arrington thinks Chrome is Google’s Windows Killer. As Michael points out, this clears the way for “millions of web devices, even desktop web devices, in the coming years that completely strip out the Windows layer and use the browser as the only operating system the user needs.” Given that both the enterprise and consumer markets haven’t exactly been hot about Vista, I suspect Microsoft may be somewhat concerned about this development. Henry Blodgett over at the Silicon Valley Insider sees the development from precisely this angle, blogging that Google has launched a cloud operating system and called it a ‘browser.’

Who else should be concerned? Maybe Mozilla, though judging by this interview with its CEO, they’re putting a good face on the development for the moment. What’s next? Harry McCracken asked 10 questions about Google Chrome over at Technologizer that address Mozilla’s future relationship (and relevance). Jeremiah Owyang has added a few more questions in thinking about what Chrome could mean long term. Both ask for response and speculation in their comment sections, so have at ’em.

Microsoft hasn’t been standing still, of course. They’ve been chasing search revenue for years, as evidenced by the failed Yahoo! acquisition. As the folks over at the Google Subnet blog at NetworkWorld point out, IE 8’s InPrivate mode thwarts Google’s targeted advertising. Unless the world upgrades to IE 8 and begins to browse InPrivate en masse, however, I’m guessing that GOOG’s 3+ billion of revenue per quarter is gonna be safe for the moment.

That’s especially true when you consider another critical element of Chrome: its future relevance to mobile search. Google’s Eric Schmidt has been quite bullish in this area, estimating that mobile search revenue will likely surpass desktop search in the not-so-distant future. The iPhone has shown what a data connection and full Web browser can do to mobile search (Try 50 times as many searches originating from iPhones vs. a normal cellphone). Here’s a prediction you can take to the bank: Just as the iPhone features a stripped down version of Safari, Google’s Android OS will have a similarly light version of Chrome optimized for a mobile device and poised to fully take advantage of the possibilities for geotargeted advertising based upon a user’s demographics, Web history and location.

Louis Gray is dead-on when he points out that Web browsers are now about the hooks. Apple’s Safari will be increasingly optimized for the iPhone and working with the private cloud that is MobileMe. Microsoft has built IE to be integrated with Windows and Office, though because of the bundling issues presented by antitrust has always had to walk a fine line. Flock, the social media-optimized version of Firefox, carves out a niche because of its tie-ins with the various networks and services. Chrome is no different, as I pointed out above. If you are already a power user of Gmail, gDocs, gTalk, gReader or g-Anything, Chrome may make more sense. Chrome is, I should note, only available for Windows Vista or XP at the moment. Guess they figure Safari will do the trick for a Webkit-based browser for Mac users and that the Linux crowd will be satisfied with Firefox and Opera for the moment.

To poorly paraphrase Lando Calrissian, Google’s Chrome is likely to allow all mobile users to truly surf with them amongst the clouds.

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