MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--On the Web, a site that responds a few milliseconds faster can make a big difference in people's engagement. It's for this reason that Google believes its new Web browser, Chrome, is a project worth investing in rather than a footnote in the history of the Internet.
Chrome, Google said during its Tuesday launch event, is much faster at showing Web pages than the most widely used browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Google's hope is that performance will open up the bottleneck that chokes the speed and abilities of today's Web-based applications.
In short, Chrome is more of a long-term competitive threat to Microsoft Office and Windows than it is to Internet Explorer.
That may sound a little grand, but the evidence is on display in Google's own lobby, where the search company's computer kiosks present a browser only--no start menu, no desktop shortcuts, no operating system.
Why speed means money
Google benefits materially from fast performance. First, when it comes to search, Google discovered when its search page loads fractionally faster, users search more often, which of course leads to more opportunities for Google to place its highly lucrative text ads. Second, a faster Web application foundation means that Google's online applications for e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, and calendars can become faster and fuller-featured.
Note that Google likes to talk about its three main efforts: search, ads, and apps, and with Chrome or a faster browser in general, all three benefit.
"Our business does well if people are using the Web a lot and are able to use it easily and quickly," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said.
Google faces many challenges with Chrome--convincing anyone other than a few early adopters and Web developers to adopt it, matching the pace of development of rival browsers, and assuring the Google-phobic that it's OK for the company to be in charge of yet another essential element of computing. But Google's influence is strong enough that just talking about performance and rattling its chrome-plated saber is probably enough to advance its Web-application agenda.
Brin was loath to call Chrome an operating system, but it was clear at Tuesday's event that he defines Chrome's success in terms of the applications that can be run.
"The word 'operating system' comes with a lot of baggage. We have a lightweight, fast engine for executing Web applications," Brin said. But, he added, "I think we'll see more and more Web applications of greater sophistication. All the things (you see) today are pretty challenging to do."
And, Brin added, Google benefits even if Chrome has no other influence than to get the competitive juices flowing faster among developers of competing browsers: "Even if IE 9 was much, much faster as a result of Chrome, we would consider that a success," Brin said.
Chrome's V8 engine
Bak wouldn't share any specific numbers, but he said Chrome is "many times faster" than IE 7. How about Firefox, now and later with TraceMonkey? "Many times faster. I guarantee you."
New horizons for Web developers?
And Sundar Pichai, a Google vice president of product management, was salivating over the possibilities.
The biggest buzzkill for Google's vision, though, is that the Internet is just as much a boat anchor as an engine of innovation. Firefox has achieved notable market penetration and has inflamed the passions of many Net aficionados, but it still lags the market share of Internet Explorer 6, which was introduced in 2001, when the first Internet bubble was still in the process of bursting.
And Google didn't have much to convince me that average users would be moving to Chrome anytime soon. Faster browsing and various features for user interface, security, privacy, and search are handy, but not enough to get most people to take the trouble of downloading and installing a new browser.
But even if Chrome never gets far beyond the stage of publicity, don't discount the power of Google promotion. The company has a lot of power in setting the technology agenda. And as long as the company is willing to count a faster IE as a successful outcome, its Chrome project looks like it'll be a win.