Google steps on Firefox with its new Zune...err, Chrome browser

It has the brand equity to make people pay attention to Chrome in the way start-up Flock never did, but could Chrome be Google's Zune moment?

Tech Culture

Despite Google's recent extension of its partnership with Mozilla, it was just a matter of time before Google got too big for anyone else's browser and decided to write its own. Or, rather, it was just a matter of time before Google decided to borrow the best of others' open-source projects and extend them, as this is what Google generally does.

And so Google has done with its newly announced open-source Chrome browser:

What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for web pages and applications, and that's what we set out to build.

So writes Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management at Google, and so plans Google. The difference this time is that Google will actually have to contribute code back, making its Chrome browser an experiment in community building, rather than merely community borrowing. It's also an experiment in distributing software, not merely services, an area in which Google has not made much of a dent to date.

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Ars technica thinks Chrome sounds really innovative, what with its ability to segment the processes running in different browser tabs, among other things. Mozilla's John Lilly welcomes the competition and continued partnership with Google, but can't help but strike an ominous chord:

...[T]he parts where [Google and Mozilla are] different, with different missions, will continue to be separate. Mozilla's mission is to keep the Web open and participatory....

Lilly doesn't say it, but presumably he could have finished the sentence this way: "...And Google's mission is to drive as much traffic and advertisements through its sites and services." This is where I believe Chrome could both thrive and stagnate.

Google has been bankrolling Mozilla's Firefox, and it may well be that Google sees further life, at least in the short term, for a strong Firefox, as ZDNet's Larry Dignan suggests. But I can't imagine Google enjoying this whole "sharing" thing for very long. Not if it's successful with Chrome.

A Zune moment?
Nor can I imagine Web developers getting excited about developing for yet another browser. It took years for anyone to start developing for Firefox, and no one got excited about developing for Flock or other spin-offs of Firefox. Google has the brand equity to make people pay attention to Chrome in the way start-up Flock never did, but could Chrome be Google's Zune moment?

In the media player world, the iPod reigned despite Microsoft coming out with a good-but-not-good-enough alternative. Firefox has managed to gain a 20 percent market share after years of fighting: 72 percent of Web users still slum with Internet Explorer. Are these folks magically going to dump IE just because Google showed up to the party? Unlikely.

Indeed, successful as Google has been, it's even more notable for its many failures. Take a look at all the products and services it offers. How many do you use? For that matter, how many have you even heard of? A handful?

Many will suggest that Google's entrance to this market, like others that it has entered (Froogle with comparison shopping, anyone?), is game over for Firefox. I couldn't disagree more, and here's a key reason:

Google has failed in its attempts to become a software distributor. Yes, the Google Desktop has attracted some fans, but nowhere near a respectable minority. Google knows how to piggyback on others' desktop clients. It knows how to monetize Web services fantastically well. It knows far less about driving downloads and uptake of its products, excepting its core search functionality.

The only Chrome lining I see in this experiment from Google, at least in the short term, is that Google will have to contribute source code back to Mozilla, Apple, and the other projects and organizations from which it will be borrowing code. Google has done much better lately with the open-source development community, more freely contributing back to a range of projects. Google Chrome will accentuate and improve this.

But for now, Google Chrome is unlikely to change anyone's lives...or market share. I think Google's forays into new markets like this is good for the industry, and good for Google. I welcome the move. I'm just not holding my breath for world domination anytime soon.

Click here for full coverage of the Google Chrome launch.

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