Google Plunges Into Browser Market

Just days after Microsoft released the second beta of Internet Explorer 8, Google unexpectedly made what could be its largest assault on Redmond to date--the release of its own Web browser.

Google today released the first beta of its new browser, which it calls Chrome, and is set to offer preview releases in 100 countries. In so doing, Google said it hopes to shake up a browser market now dominated by Microsoft's IE, Mozilla Foundation's Firefox, and, to a lesser extent, Apple's Safari.

Chrome takes advantage of Apple's WebKit, the open source rendering engine also used in Google's forthcoming Android platform, which the company is rolling out for mobile handsets. Google is also using components of Mozilla Firefox, among other open source components. The company said it will also share its code with the open source community.

Google said WebKit makes more efficient use of system memory than other Web rendering engines. "We believe we can add value for users and, at the same time, help drive innovation on the Web," said Sundar Pichai, Google's vice president of product management and Linus Upson, the company's engineering director, in a blog posting announcing Chrome.

Google describes Chrome as a browser with a simple interface, in the same model as its search UI. However, the company argues that its open source browser components can run complex Web apps faster and more reliably than others.

Among other things, Google says Chrome isolates each browser tab in its own sandbox, preventing the entire browser from crashing when one page fails, although rivals have taken similar steps to isolate tabs within browsers. Google also says Chrome offers a more powerful JavaScript engine, which it calls V8. According to Google, the V8 JavaScript engine examines the JavaScript source code and instead generates machine code that can run directly on the processor.

Analysts today said Google faces an uphill battle in making a dent in the browser market. "I don't think there will be a big market impact unless there are radical performance differences," said Forrester analyst Redwan Iqbal in an e-mail interview. "There is little pain for Chrome to heal."

That's not to say it won't have some impact, he added. "It's definitely a good show for WebKit and there are some nice ideas for established players to incorporate."

That said, if Google is able to upset the status quo, it could have a significant impact on Google's effort to take control of the desktop, added Iqbal's colleague at Forrester, Jeffrey Hammond.

"If they do gain significant share they have a great opportunity to drive forward with a WebTop that unifies the client computing experience inside a browser, as opposed to a desktop," Hammond said in the e-mail discussion.

Google took the unconventional approach of describing how Chrome works in an online comic strip, accessible here.

"We want browsers to find that sweet spot between too many features and too few with a clean, simple, and efficient user interface," the comic strip said.

The strip also illustrates the issue related to asynchronous APIs that rely on single threaded JavaScript sessions, which lock up browsers until the session is complete. Rather than develop a multithreaded browser, Google said it developed Chrome to employ multiple processes, each with its own memory. "We are applying the same kind of process isolation you find in modern operating systems," Google software engineer Arnaud Weber is portrayed as saying in the comic strip.

It remains to be seen what impact Chrome will have, but Hammond said at the very least he would expect others to borrow from its best ideas.

If Google wants to make a dent in the market with Chrome, it will have to improve its responsiveness to customers, said M. Victor Janulaitis, CEO of Park City, Utah-based Janco Associates Inc., which last month released a study showing a shifting browser market.

Janulaitis said customers cannot get adequate resolutions to problems from Google. "The quality of their interaction with their customers today is poor at best," he said.

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