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Google Chrome: Browser competition back in high gear

No browser maker is complacent these days, but Google's open-source browser effort is likely to put on even more pressure.

Google Chrome is a warning shot over the bows of Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.

The open-source software project, to be detailed later Tuesday at Google's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., should dispel any lingering thoughts that the browser wars are over. To be sure, it's less cutthroat now than in the 1990s, but one of technology's most powerful companies is now on the battlefield.

So how does Chrome change the competitive landscape?

Google Chrome has many competitors to contend with.
Google Chrome has many competitors to contend with, according to these August stats. Net Applications

Initially at least, it's not likely to change the market share rankings. According to Net Applications' browser market share statistics for August, IE has 72 percent share, Firefox 20 percent, Safari 6 percent, and Opera 1 percent.

But even before Google's browser became available for download, its repercussions were traversing the industry. There are plenty of implications from a company as large as Google that builds a browser tuned to advance the company's agenda of Web-based applications.

Here are some possible implications for the four major alternatives to Chrome.

Internet Explorer
IE still claims the dominant share of the browser market, and it still has the hard-to-beat distribution channel of being built into the most widely used operating system.

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Firefox has been chipping away at IE's share for years, but the dominance has remained fairly secure, and unless Chrome offers revolutionary new abilities, it's not likely to do more than perhaps increase the chipping rate a bit.

Microsoft has lit a fire under its IE team, and given that Google is such a powerful Microsoft rival, that fire doubtless will burn all the hotter because of Chrome. The forthcoming IE 8, with beta 2 released last week and the final version officially due to ship by the end of January, is a sign of how serious Microsoft is.

Officially, Microsoft welcomes the competition. "The browser landscape is highly competitive, but people will choose Internet Explorer 8 for the way it puts the services they want right at their fingertips, respects their personal choices about how they want to browse and, more than any other browsing technology, puts them in control of their personal data online," Dean Hachamovitch, Internet Explorer general manager, said in a statement.

Vast numbers of people haven't upgraded from IE 6, which is ancient in Internet years. That cuts both ways for Microsoft: it's hard to get people to upgrade to IE 7 much less to IE 8, but those folks aren't moving to the competition either.

Of course, with Google's Web application agenda, the bigger long-term threat is to Microsoft's Office team, not to its IE team.

Firefox potentially stands to lose the most from Chrome.

It's the leading alternative to IE and the standard bearer for those who love open-source software and revile Microsoft's technology, its business practices, and its philosophy. If you're hell-bent on taking down Microsoft, you could pick worse allies than Google.

Mozilla has something for the philosophical purists that Google lacks, though: a measure of independence. "Uniquely in this market, we're a public-benefit, nonprofit group, with no other agenda or profit motive at all," Mozilla Corp. Chief Executive John Lilly said in a blog posting Monday.

Survival is a powerful motive even if profit isn't, though, and the Mozilla Foundation, the parent of the Mozilla Corp., relies on Google for tens of millions of dollars each year in exchange for prominent placement of Google in the browser's search. Happily for Mozilla, Google just signed up for three more years of subsidizing Mozilla, so Firefox and other foundation activities should be financially sound at least for the time being.

Firefox has built a massive grassroots fan base, though. And even Google, for all its charisma, money, and power, will have a hard time replicating that.

Finally, though Chrome at first blush is bad news for Firefox, there's a subtler reality at play: IE is the dominant browser, and the greater the number of credible underdogs that exist, the more that dominance can't be taken for granted. Don't be surprised to hear Mozilla and Google present themselves more as allies than foes.

Apple has expanded its Safari ambitions from Mac OS X to Windows, most notably by letting the browser hitch a ride along with the iTunes update software. However, Safari has yet to become a force to be reckoned with.

But Safari could benefit indirectly from Chrome: both browsers are based on the open-source WebKit rendering engine.

If Google sponsors aggressive Webkit development--and doesn't end up wrestling with Apple for power over the project--both browsers stand to gain. Google's Android browser for mobile phones, it should be noted, also is based on WebKit.

Opera has a small share of the browser market, so it's the most likely to drop in position if Google Chrome catches on. It already fights for relevance against the bigger players.

But Opera is a scrappy company. Not surprisingly, it prefers to look at its own growth rather than its sliver of share, and CEO Jon Tetzchner points out that its share has grown each time a new browser has emerged as a viable competitor to Internet Explorer.

"Last year, we had more than 50 percent growth in our user base," Tetzchner said. "I think we'll do quite well this year as well. It seems every time there's talk of new browsers, that's been a positive thing for us. It has been good there is focus on browser alternatives."

Click here for full coverage of the Google Chrome launch.