Google Chrome starts the Third Great Browser War
With the characteristic effect of a bolt from the blue, at the beginning of this week Mountain View has released the beta version of its browser, Google Chrome, joining the super-competitive market of software interfaces toward the possibilities of net economy and information society. Everybody talk about it, everybody express their own thoughts on the matter, but still no one has had the heart to define the event with its due name: Chrome, there’s no much to do about that, marks the beginning of a new browser war in a time in which the said browsers are the main framework of business and access to digital heritage of interconnected mankind.
The unrestrained buzz about Chrome has begun with the disclosures published by Philipp Lenssen on Google Blogoscoped, following the dispatch via snail mail of a 38-pages comic book (signed by Scott McCloud) that cared to examine the new project on which Google has worked almost secretly during the last months. Google Chrome is an open source browser based on the Webkit rendering engine, the same of Apple Safari, and including the acceleration engine for web applications known as Google Gears.
The Chrome Advent
The Chrome existence has become official soon after the appearance of Lenssen post, with the Google Blog announcement, the descriptive comic book hosting and the following release of the software first beta. Google defines Chrome as a fresh take in the web browsers field, for the fact that the software is designed from its bottom as an ideal answer to the actual needs of Internet users, in search for security, stability and technological platforms capable of making clear and performing the use of web applications in regard of those installed off-line.
The other Chrome key elements comprise a framework design of a multi-process type, with the creation of a new semi-virtualized instance of the application at the opening of any new web page, a renewed interface that includes the navigation tools inside the tabs rather than placing them on top, the Omnibox feature for the autocompletion of pages typed in the address bar based on Google search engine indexes, the availability of an “incognito” mode which doesn’t leave traces at the end of the browsing session, the integration of anti-phishing and anti-malware services already used in Mozilla Firefox and the possibility to drag the open tabs outside and inside the interface, creating in practice a detached browsing instance or adding it to the main one.
As it’s easy to understand, there’s enough stuff to arouse a real information flooding on the technological and market consequences of Chrome release. And in fact so it has been: from the first of September up to now the software has drawn the attentions of news sites, traditional newspapers, blogosphere and tech gossip portals, all in race for reporting the last buzz and the last bit of information on the features and flaws of the new browser.
The Third Great War
The overwhelming comments are however those concerning what will happen, hereafter, in the browsers market considering that Google has decided to play on its own and not to simply financially support Mozilla: currently the Red Panda Foundation has a deal with Mountain View comprising the implementation of Google search features within Firefox, in exchange of a sum amounting, in 2006, to 57 millions of dollars that is 85% of company incomes. The deal has been renewed till 2011 some days before the Chrome launch, but it’s certain that with its expiration Mozilla’s fate will be put heavily at stake as admitted by CEO John Lily.
And if Mozilla, that has so far eroded market shares to Internet Explorer till the reach of a remarkable 20% have to worry, Microsoft is the corporation that have to think (and lose) more about the Google move: sure, IE can still reckon on the fact of being preinstalled on Windows OSs, but Google has to its side the privileged relationship with who uses the Net day by day, its “being” the Net for many because of search, the Gmail webmail, the applications and web services that see the Chrome browser as their ideal completion.
Survived to the dot-com speculative bubble, Google is the company that above all has shaped the computer hi-tech of the last years to its own image, and the results of the first week of Chrome life are eloquent: according to the evaluations the Gbrowser would have been able to already surpass the 1% market share of Opera, one of the “minor” browsers that together with Safari has spurred competition so far but has never consumed so much of the IE predominance.
The first browser war (1996-2004) saw the opposition of Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, and the Microsoft browser had an easy match into crushing its competitor because of the integration into Windows. The second browser war (2004-2008) saw the birth and evolution of strong open source alternatives leaded by the above said Mozilla Firefox, together with the burst of net services as complements or substitutes of the traditional software-in-a-box on which Microsoft has always ruled.
The third great war has been started by Google seemingly against everyone, but it isn’t so difficult to foretell that Chrome will be the beginning of a new phase of the commercial and technological confrontation between the two giants of today’s personal computing, Google and Microsoft, that from the skirmishes and “cloud computing” marketing vaporware shifts to a real clash for the supremacy in what has become the privileged tool to knowledge access, purchase, sharing, entertainment and to studying in the information society.
Insofar as the effects of Chrome release on the spreading of “alternative” browsers like Firefox, Opera and Safari have to be proven, it can be said that Google have already cannibalized Mozilla and the open source technology: Chrome contains pieces of Firefox code, more than Safari rendering engine, and the new alternative to IE overwhelming power is surely build on the strength of the “Google” brand (by now more attractive than the “Microsoft” brand), but mostly on the opportunity to reuse open source platforms already widely adopted as market standards and passed through the effort of cooperative coding distinguishing quality projects like those brought by Mozilla.
Early reports from the front line
After having shaped the Internet evolution, certainly Google Inc. has the potential to repeat the exploit with the Net access software too. A potential made of financial resources, technologies, infrastructures and pure ambition that see the company widening more and more its horizons, from the mobile market with Android to the launch of the so-called first “Google Satellite” ever, the most advanced hi-res Earth scanning device so far.
Talking about web browsers, anyway, Chrome will have to prove to be up to expectations grown around it and to be able to hold the criticism already going up among who dislikes to see the “Google” logo camp on everything, and above all doesn’t trust the ginormous power derived from the owning of an unheard-of amount of sensitive data on the users and their on-line business.
The address bar autocompletion feature known as Omnibox, for example, has been defined the Pandora’s box of the ability to track browsing habits. Google has stated the will to store 2% of data caught by Omnibox, the terms and the URL transferred by the tool to Mountain View servers without even the need to visit them in practice. Thinking about the traffic amount flowing through the said servers, even a mere 2% would be a particularly tasty resource for advertising companies and not only, other than being the nth examination tool in the hands of a company that “already knows far too much about what everybody is thinking at any given moment“, just to quote the words of Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Peter Eckersley.
The browser’s “incognito” mode and its open source nature soften this kind of concerns, but there is no doubt that with Chrome the “Big Net-Brother” syndrome involving Google so far dangerously approach its concrete implementation. It’s doesn’t help from this point of view to look at the first version of the software EULA, whose section 11 grants to Google a “perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free” right to use to its liking any content uploaded through the browser. The terms of service have then been changed to appear more user-friendly, but perplexity for the power excess in the hands of Google remain.
From a purely technological standpoint, at last, Chrome won’t have an easy match into sweeping away some very combative competitors: the presumed superior security has already been debunked by the discovery of the first flaw in the browser, that exploiting a WebKit vulnerability and a bug in the Java code could bring the unaware user into downloading and executing a malware (in the form of a JAR archive) on the client. “Chrome is going to become popular - writes Mikko Hyppönen from F-Secure - and that means it will also become an interesting target for malware authors“.
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