Google: Cloud Computing's Chrome Lining

Chrome is the original bling. Chrome caps, wheels and accessories have been essential elements of the pimped-out ride for decades. Now chrome, or rather Chrome, is preparing to pimp out your desktop. Google's new Web browser puts a high polish of user-friendly style onto the evolving trend toward cloud computing. (And you thought the lining was silver.)

Tuesday, Google launched the beta version of Chrome, formally entering the long-simmering war for browser supremacy. Odds are fairly high that you're reading this story using some iteration of Microsoft Internet Explorer, which dominates the landscape with a 72 percent share, according to Net Applications. (Despite years of taking aim at Microsoft, Mozilla's free, open-source Firefox is a distant second at 19.7 percent; Apple's Safari browser accounts for a mere 6.37 percent.)

Why go up against Microsoft, especially when IE comes installed on every new Windows machine? For starters, it's because Google is intensely interested in making your browser do more. The company treats the Internet like a potentially vast suite of online applications, not just a place to read (which is, naturally, where you get all of your news--right?). "There's been a lot of renewal of interest in browsers in the last 18 months or so," says Mike Wolf, director of ABI Research. And indeed, Chrome isn't your average browser.

Google already offers a suite of software applications online--in the cloud--for free: You can check your Gmail, type up a memo on Google docs, manage your photos with Picasa, read all your favorite sites with Google Reader, and store it all on Google's servers--allowing you to access it from any computer. Google Chrome takes all those applications and serves them up in one neat package--almost exactly like (watch out, Redmond) an online operating system. "Chrome's a further reflection of the fact that the nature of the Web is changing from a place where we go to read pages of information, to where we go to run software applications," says Nicholas Carr, author of "The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google."

For now, only Windows Vista/XP users can install Chrome. I tried it out for a couple of hours this afternoon (the download process was quick and painless) and sure enough, it looks and feels just like a browser made by Google. 'So what?' you ask? For one thing, with the ability to run several processes at the same time, Chrome gives each application its own dedicated chunk of memory and its own windows. This means that if, say, the Web page you're reading crashes, it won't take every other open tab down with it. (Have you ever lost an e-mail you were typing because some stupid Web page, that you also happened to be on, crashed? Frustrating.) You can even put a shortcut to Google Maps, or your Gmail account, right on your desktop.

There is no home page on Chrome, just a bunch of boxes of the sites you've visited most, or most recently. Unless, that is, you visited them in "incognito" mode--which has already become known by bloggers as "porn mode"--which doesn't record the sites you've visited on your hard drive (though, be warned, your server still records the sites you visit). There is no search bar, just an "Omnibox," which is a streamlined url/search field that understands the differences between searches and Web addresses.

For a couple of years now, Google has offered toolbars and widgets that let users tack their applications onto existing frameworks, such as blogs, desktops and even Internet Explorer. "This is a natural extension of that," says ABI's Wolf. But the trick is going to be in getting average users to abandon something familiar (IE) to download something new--even if it's free. Since more savvy users are likely to already have installed Firefox, the challenge will be to convince them that Chrome offers enough worthwhile features to switch. One carrot might be in mobile, and integration with Google's open-source mobile platform, Android. Chrome is built with WebKit, the same open-source-browser engine that is used by both Apple's Safari and, intriguingly, Android--suggesting that Google is making a bid for mobile browser supremacy. This would pit it, most likely, in a fierce fight against the iPhone and its Safari-enabled ecosystem.

In the short run, it seems unlikely that Google is poised to achieve desktop browser dominance. That may not be their primary goal anyway. After all, Google is really just an incredibly sophisticated advertising platform, and Chrome is its most eloquent expression of that fact yet. "As far as Google is concerned, the more that people use the Internet rather than constrict themselves to applications on a hard drive, the better it is for them to run their ad business and collect information on them," says Carr. "Getting the browser modernized, getting it to be a means of running applications, is crucial to Google's business--and cloud computing--in the future." In other words, Google is hoping to make it rain.