Google's growing supremacy in several areas of the web, in the advertising market, and in online applications, has already sparked debates about whether Google, originally a search engine specialist, is becoming a monster and whether it is still complying with its company motto ("Don't be evil"). Some researchers have previously expressed the view that Google needs to be broken up (PDF, Google Dangers Report from Graz University 2007). Tuesday's release of Google's new browser, Chrome, has not only fuelled a new dispute about whose web browser is the best but has also triggered discussions about Google's plans and its dominant position.
Chrome is seen as not just an attack on Microsoft's leading position on the browser market, though some observers, like Kara Swisher in her web log, and the San Jose Mercury News, are going so far as to speak of a new "browser war". Google could also be aiming at Microsoft's dominance on the market for operating systems, says Michael Arrington on the Techcrunch tech blog. Chrome, he says, is significant not only as a competitor to Internet Explorer, but also as a vehicle for Google's applications. Others have pointedly calling Chrome a "trojan horse browser" since it integrates Google's other programs, such as Mail, Docs and Spreadsheets as well as Desktop Search, and these run offline using Google Gears, no matter which operating system is in use. Since these Google programs are free of charge, Chrome could give them, and consequently cloud computing, a powerful boost.
But before this can come about, Google would first have to capture a significant share of the web browser market, at least 70 per cent of which, according to various analysts, is in the hands of Microsoft. Fast-reacting web analysts claim to have discovered that the search engine specialist has already achieved some initial success. GetClicky, an American start-up that claims to monitor 45,000 web sites, says Google's market share is currently just under three per cent. But even if these figures actually reflect reality, it could be because a lot of users are just curious and may return to their existing software. Or they may think that Chrome is, as claimed by Google, more stable, less memory-hungry and faster, and stick with it.
In any case, Citigroup analyst Mark Mahaney sees a demand for a faster, simpler, and more stable browser than Internet Explorer. Whether Chrome is more secure is debatable following the discovery of two vulnerabilities in it. Mahaney points out that 20 per cent of users use Firefox to browse the net. That, he says, is a remarkable phenomenon, given that the Mozilla browser, unlike IE, is not preinstalled on Windows systems. Google also has to overcome this hurdle with Chrome, but, as the Seattle Times points out, it is not subject to antitrust restrictions like Microsoft.
Under an extra-judicial agreement arrived at in 2002 following antitrust proceedings by the US government against Microsoft, the latter is forbidden to reward computer manufacturers financially for installing no browser software apart from Internet Explorer. This provision was to have expired last year but, in January, at the behest of some US states and the federal antitrust enforcement agency, was extended until November 2009. It does not apply to Google, the Seattle Times continues, which can give full vent to its accumulated forces on the computer market – unlike the not exactly well financed Mozilla Foundation, which is for the most part financed by Google – while Microsoft can only influence PC manufacturers indirectly.
The Wall Street Journal reports Doug Anmuth, an analyst at Lehman Brothers, as saying that Google, in distributing Chrome, could exploit public awareness of its brand as well as its various partnerships, and that Google could achieve a 15 to 20 per cent share of the US web browser market within two years. However, Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager for Internet Explorer, is reported in the New York Times as playing this down, saying that Chrome is not the first or the best web browser, only the first from Google. He says the functionality available in the comingInternet Explorer 8, "for what people do every day again and again, is better". It can't yet be predicted how, and how fast, the use of Chrome will spread, so the only thing Hachamovitch, or Mozilla CEO John Lilly, can do is point out the advantages of his own business model and his own software.
Others have already suggested that Google would use Chrome to intrude on their privacy. Google has already published details on Chrome's data protection, perhaps in order to soothe those who, in very recent discussions of Google's Street View, expressed disquiet about the privacy of internet users and people in general, something Microsoft saw as an opportunity to gather bonus points by claiming to possess far superior data protection. Statements like "no personal information has to be given in order to use and download Google Chrome" are perhaps intended to calm fears, but the browser is preset so that an unique application number, the user's IP address, and a few cookies are sent to Google. The entries in the address field are also sent to Google, as allowing Google Suggest to offer up suggested websites.
Even when Google insists that it collects no personal data, critical observers go on red alert. A data disaster at AOL, resulting in 20 million search queries by 658,000 of its clients becoming public knowledge, made it clear, if it had not been abundantly clear before then, that directly personal information is not necessarily required in order to draw conclusions about users from the queries they make. On top of that, it has already become obvious that state agencies can also take an interest in data collected from search queries, as was revealed in the USA in early 2006 when the federal authorities demanded that Google hand such data over; Google refused. (jk/c't)