Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

The Importance Of Chrome

The rumors seem to have been true...the gBrowser is real. And it looks like it will simply be awesome. To my friends who have been toiling on it in deep secrecy for so very long, congratulations. Yes, yes, more to do, blah blah...screw that. You shipped! Huzzah!

So what does Chrome mean for those of us who aren't breaking out the champagne? Well, first, it's the second sign (after Gears and YBP (har!)) that the content authors are taking back the web from the "browser guys". I've been fascinated for the last 6 months or so by the strategic mis-alignment which results when both the browsing and authoring experience in the hands of organizations only care about one but not the other. Mozilla gets paid by search-box revenue and users download it because it's better for browsing, therefore Mozilla is incented to build new ways to browse, but their investments in content are somewhat mis-aligned (and, frankly, it shows). Google and Yahoo, on the other hand, are critically dependent on the content getting better, so they produce plugins to augment HTML in un-intrusive ways. Chrome crosses over into the browser business from the perspective of content, and it also shows, albeit in a good-ish way. I guess we'll need to wait and see how browsing-oriented Chrome gets (e.g., will it sprout an extensions platform – ala Firefox – or will the propsect of an ad-blocking plugin for the Google browser make that proposal D.O.A.?).

Regardless of how Chrome evolves as a product, the important question now is: how will it be distributed? The obviously non-evil thing to do is to say "look, it's great, it's free" and hope that the world discovers it on its own thanks to word-of-mouth and/or leverage of the Google brand. Given that Chrome delivers new awesome things which are end-user-visible (some "end-user-awesome", if you will), there's some real chance that Chrome can get to roughly Firefox level market-share without breaking too much of a sweat. Not that Firefox's market share is anything to really covet, given that MoFo/MoCo have been toiling at it for a decade now. To get real, honest-to-god leverage out of this process, Chrome is going to need something like 60+% market share, and that means changing ingrained user habits. I put the probability of that happening without distribution channel love at roughly bupkis.

Microsoft killed Netscape by bundling the browser with the OS. Apple is making inroads by bundling. Firefox is even getting aggressive. So where does this leave "don't be evil"? Given the toolbar promotional deals which Google has cut in the past, I think there's some organizational capacity inside the Goog to use the distribution channels they've already created as a way of getting to critical mass. What I don't see, though, is a view of how to bring the mission of Gears into alignment with Chrome (or vice versa). They're both important, but Chrome is a long-term bet while Gears is the near-future solution. They are not in opposition, but their strategies for gaining leverage over the problems facing content authors are very different.

We need what Gears can offer to every browser right now while Chrome dukes it out for market share on the browsing experience merits. Hopefully, if nothing else, the Chrome installer will add Gears to other browsers on the system that users install Chrome to. Even if they don't pick the googly experience for browsing day-to-day, perhaps Chrome can still serve to give new tools to the content-author side of the house. Other browser vendors won't do such a thing since they win or loose on an exclusive "I must replace the other guy" basis. Here, Google (and by "Google", I mean "the open web") wins either way. Hopefully Google's interest in making the content experience better trumps the "we're all browser guys now" instinct in this case.

We'll find out tomorrow, I guess. Here's to hoping.