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Weekly Column

Doomsday: Why Google needs its own browser.

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By Robert X. Cringely

The Pulpit Poll

Is Chrome intended to defeat Internet Explorer?

Yes: Google can do anything.
No: How do you defeat a product that generates no revenue?

Skip this one and see results

This was the week Google surprised the world with Chrome, its own open source web browser. Just imagine the deadly effect that had on a dozen or more browser-specific start-ups in Silicon Valley. Lots of readers are wondering what I think of Chrome, like my opinion really matters. Chrome is okay — faster, but not faster enough to make me change for that reason alone. It’s better than IE and almost better than Firefox except there are no plug-ins to speak of. What I really wonder, though, is why Google bothered to do a browser at all? Now I know.

It’s not like there aren’t enough web browsers in the world. There are plenty. And though Internet Explorer still dominates the Windows market, Firefox (not to mention Opera, Safari, etc.) is there to keep Microsoft honest,. So why did Google even bother? There are two general opinions on this and they are not mutually exclusive. Naturally one opinion is widely held and the other is held mainly by me.

The first reason why Google had to do its own browser comes courtesy of my friend Dave:

“People are looking at Google Chrome and actually think Google is competing in the so-called Browser Wars,” said Dave. “This is not the case at all. Google doesn’t care what happens to Chrome. And, in fact would be absolutely thrilled if Firefox and Opera enhanced their browsers to the point where they trounce Chrome into extinction. Google doesn’t make a dime off of Chrome. Its money comes from people using the web browser — any browser.

“What Google does not want is Microsoft creating a browser that sucks. Actually, Google doesn’t mind if Microsoft’s browser sucks. What they really don’t want is Microsoft to make a browser that sucks and everyone ends up using it. And, if the IE8 beta shows us anything, making a really sucky web browser is Microsoft’s true ambition.

“Google’s main concern is quite simple: Browsers should render pages accurately, and the JavaScript engine in the browser should be fast, efficient, and bug free. On both counts, IE8 is an abomination. JScript just doesn’t behave very well and is buggy. And, IE’s page-rendering engine simply does not follow the standard. Because of this, Google has to keep development on their Google Applications quite generic and simply cannot implement the features they want. You’ll also notice that Microsoft recently has been putting on some very compelling web content that is only available if you use Windows and IE.

Now back to Bob. Everything Dave says makes sense and I agree with it, but it doesn’t answer my real question, which is not “Why did Google have to do a browser?” but rather, “What made it impossible for Google NOT to do a browser?”

The answer to this latter question begins with Dave noticing Microsoft’s recent IE- and Windows-specific web content, which cracks open the door on Google’s greatest fear — that Microsoft will turn off ads in IE.

Microsoft can’t do that, can they?

Microsoft can do pretty much whatever it wants in this area. There is plenty of browser competition. They can hobble their own product if they like, though it would drive users away from IE — from a product that brings Microsoft no direct revenue anyway — so what’s the risk?

Microsoft turns off the ads in IE and what happens? Google takes a huge revenue hit, is knocked down three pegs in the eyes of Wall Street, while pretty much nothing happens to Microsoft, which would have just shown the world who is still the sheriff.

I am not saying this is going to happen, but I AM saying that it COULD happen — and that very remote possibility is, by itself, enough to make Google have to produce its own browser.

Let me be clear that there doesn’t have to be any subterfuge here on Microsoft’s part. They can simply turn off the ads in IE, declaring it a non-commercial product. If you don’t like it, get another browser — there are plenty to choose from. Microsoft’s revenue would go almost unchanged while Google’s would plummet, if only for a few weeks or months — just long enough for Microsoft to come through with a second punch, that is if they have thought that far ahead.

If you are wondering whether people really sit around Google asking if Microsoft would actually do something like this, well they do.

So to avoid that eventuality (and to do all the other things that Dave said, above) here we have Chrome, Google’s attempt to direct the future of browser development and take some momentum away from IE.

Chrome promotes WebKit rendering, which is also done in Safari. It would not surprise me if WebKit didn’t make some inroads shortly with Firefox and Opera, helping somewhat to turn the tide away from IE. Yet WebKit will change, too, by adopting Google’s V8 JavaScript engine, replacing JavaScriptCore in both WebKit and Safari. Thus all the open source browsers (and Safari) become better and more alike, which helps them against IE.

A rising tide floats all (open source) ships. Google needs open source browsers to become even more competitive with IE, hence Chrome is a reference design that Google knows will work brilliantly with all Google Apps.

So much for Chrome: Now for something REALLY scary. I’ve been hearing that peer-to-peer file sharing has declined a bit. Actually, it’s the rate of growth that has declined, but in a market where volume is always rising and prices always falling, even a decline in growth can be significant. This is happening for lots of reasons (market saturation, summer vacation, etc.) but the effect appears to be real, much to the relief of the RIAA and MPAA, which hate people sharing music, TV shows, and movies that they see as violating the intellectual property rights of their members.

But I think something else is actually happening. People are just finding new ways to share files — ways that are harder to detect and even more chilling for society to prohibit.

Look at where P2P came from in the first place. The idea behind BitTorrent and similar programs was that many people wanted the same content and few users could afford the bandwidth to run their own dedicated servers, so sharing files by caching and re-serving small pieces of files was very efficient, especially with flat-rate bandwidth. Depending on your point of view, P2P has been a huge success or a huge pain in the ass.

But all the while, the cost of Internet bandwidth has come down A LOT. Remember P2P was born in the 1990s when most users still had dial-up connections. With the cost of Internet backbone bandwidth dropping 50 percent per year for the last decade or more, the economics have changed dramatically and it has become reasonable to effectively have your own server. No, I’m not talking about YouTube, I’m talking about dedicated servers used in large part to distribute movies and music. I’m talking about any of a number of Internet backup services.

The poster child for this new kind of service is RapidShare, a German file-sharing service that will let you distribute files up to 200 megs each for free and up to two gigs for not much money — 55 Euros per year — with no limit on the total number of files, total storage, total downloads or even total simultaneous downloads. Rip your copy of The Dark Knight, store it on RapidShare, then send the download URL to anyone you like or simply post it somewhere on the web. It’s not as efficient as P2P, but it sure is easier AND harder to detect since nothing but http is used.

Can you see where I am going with this? How are the MPAA and the RIAA likely to respond if this technique becomes really popular? They are going to want to spy on us more, even to the point of auditing (or attempting to audit) our network backups. More lawsuits, more grandmothers and little kids being sued, less privacy.

I’m sure the RIAA and MPAA will fail in the long run. Once custom protocols and ports are dropped and you can’t tell the difference between a spreadsheet and I Am Curious (Yellow) the game is up. But we’re still years — and a lot of pain — away from that.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [OPEN] read all comments (2) | add a comment

Very useful files search engine. is a search engine designed to search files in various file sharing and uploading sites.
Very useful files search engine. is a search engine designed to search files in various file sharing and uploading sites.

Rapidasky | Feb 13, 2009 | 1:34PM

I think Google chrome is lacking a little and doesn't offer as many features. It needs to be more recognisable to a simple user especially with icons. Some sites also show up broken on chrome that are fine on other browsers. These appear fine on all but have trouble with firefox:

Craig Cartwright | Sep 07, 2009 | 11:58AM
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