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Browser battle? They're more alike than different

Four top browser execs face off (sort of) at a Churchill Club event.

A panel discussion among browser executives Thursday shed a little light on the philosophical differences between four major browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera), but more than anything showed how all these products are moving in the same direction.

Responding to an audience question at the end of the panel, the browser reps set their products apart from the others this way:

Browser fellows. Left to right: Moderator Stephen Wildstrom of BusinessWeek, Christen Krogh of Opera, Sundar Pichai of Google, Dean Hachamovitch of Microsoft, and Mike Shaver of Mozilla. Rafe Needleman / CBS Interactive

Christen Krogh, Chief Development Officer, Opera: "Our claim to fame is that we can make a Web browser run on anything." He was referring to the numerous mobile and game platforms that Opera runs on.

Sundar Pichai, VP Product Management, Google: "Speed. We only have so many seconds before we die."

Dean Hachamovitch, General Manager Internet Explorer, Microsoft: "It's about how real people use the Web every day." This was the least satisfying response to this question.

Mike Shaver, VP Engineering, Mozilla: "We believe the internet is too important to have anyone excluded from it." That explains the numerous localized versions of Firefox. Shaver went on to explain that Mozilla is a nonprofit, "chartered to protect the Internet."

Other important browsers were not represented. Apple declined to send a representative for Safari. Reps from other browser companies (like Flock) were not invited.

To my mind, the standout product was Opera. It's the only one succeeding with a business model different from the others. Rather than put all its effort into a desktop product, Opera's success lies in its mobile versions.

After the panel, I asked Pichai of Google about a potential new mobile version for Chrome, now that Apple is opening up a bit and allowing alternative browsers on to the iPhone -- and with the knowledge that the Android team uses a mobile version of Chrome. But he said, "We're focused on the desktop right now." He did say Apple's move both surprised and pleased him, and he plans to work with people inside Google to figure out what to do about it. He said those conversations haven't started yet. I find that hard to believe.

One of the most interesting questions from moderator Stephen Wildstrom's was about the inherent conflict that each browser maker faces: How do you innovate when the core of the product must adhere to strict standards? Pichai said, "We wouldn't add another rendering engine to the world," which is why Google used the Webkit engine (which also powers Safari).

"It's a problem we haven't solved," said Shaver of Mozilla, "but we're getting better at knowing when to standardize and when to innovate."