Stick a candle on it: Chrome turns 5

Google's browser celebrates its 5th Chrome-iversary, now a driving force behind cutting edge Web innovation that commands around 17 percent of the global market, and Chrome's not done with you yet.

Seth Rosenblatt
Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
6 min read
Chrome cupcakes from a Google event in 2010. Photo by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Not long after Google delivered its Chrome browser to an unsuspecting world, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer downplayed the significance.

"Open source is interesting," he said at a Microsoft conference in Australia, describing WebKit, the rendering engine that Chrome was founded on.

It turned out to be a lot more than merely "interesting." Google celebrates Chrome's five-year anniversary this week, while Ballmer just announced that he will be departing the hot seat at Microsoft within a year.

"After the first couple of weeks, people were writing us off as dead," said Erik Kay, a software engineer manager who's been on the Chrome team since before the browser launched.

To his credit, Ballmer wasn't alone in failing to recognize the significance of a product that seriously shook up a somnolent Web browser market. At the time of Chrome's launch, Microsoft's much-derided but dominant Internet Explorer commanded around 72 percent of the market, with Mozilla's Firefox holding close to 20 percent, Safari taking just under 7 percent, and Opera and other browsers making up the remainder.

Why the Web? Before Chrome, Google had one of the most successful, most recognized Web apps around: Google Search. But except for a toolbar and paying companies like Mozilla to make Google the default search in their browsers, it didn't have a product of its own to promote the Web with.

Chrome changed that, and is now one of Google's most profitable products.

"When users have been using Chrome, it tends to drive Web usage up, so it's display ads too, not just search ads. And it's a driver of Google Apps," said Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president in charge of Chrome, in a 2012 interview. Although Pichai wouldn't confirm it at the time, it's likely that Google's Traffic Acquisition Costs, the amount of revenue it must share with partners, goes down as more people use Chrome.

Grabbing market share and headlines While Firefox had spent years slowly chipping away at IE's dominance, few people outside of Google expected Chrome to be a viable competitor. Chrome rocketed to more than 1 percent of the market just a day after its release, according to some reports. People were excited, and ready for something new in the browser world. Google said that Chrome's focus was on speed and simplicity, and it worked.

"We realized that for us to really drive applications, you need a great platform underneath, and in some cases deep integration with the hardware underneath," said Pichai. "For us the underlying platform was the browser, and having a say there was very important."

Chrome's big selling point was its speed, but that wasn't enough to sell it initially. It shed nearly two-thirds of its initial market share before the end of 2008. Fast and simple were good selling points, but people also wanted a browser that wasn't going to crash on them, and that could be at least somewhat extensible.

A few months later, with Chrome out of beta the browser began a rise that could be charitably described as "meteoric." Five years on, its market share still increasing on the desktop but much more slowly, and the browser is now used by nearly as many people as use Firefox. On the other side of the coin, Internet Explorer now sits around 56 percent of the market. It's doubtful that Chrome's gains are fully attributable to IE's losses, but many of them probably are.

Use a little-known shortcut to remove URLs from Chrome's omnibar predictions. Photo by Josh Miller/CNET

Beyond speed The market share shift came about because Google was able to develop a browser that lived up to its hype. Chrome's initial emphasis on speed and simplicity rarely wavered, and was soon joined by a focus on stability and security. Google wound up challenging assumptions in all four of those areas, and in the process built a browser with phenomenal reach.

One feature that proved to be a game-changer was the six-week rapid-release cycle. Browsers had been receiving major updates annually at best before Chrome. When Chrome launched, it was on a quarterly schedule, but doubling that meant that the browser updated security and stability fixes twice as fast.

In mimicking a mobile app's seamless updates that just occurred without the user having to go download the new version, Chrome was able to accomplish several goals at once. Not only did it become less noticeable when Google shipped those pesky but important security and stability fixes, but fans got accustomed to regular updates, and Chrome's own engineers were able to focus on introducing new features like the private browsing "Incognito" mode, automatic page translation, sandboxing, Native Client, and supporting the messy and unfinished alphabet soup of next-generation Web technologies like HTML5, CSS3, newer JavaScript APIs, WebGL, and WebRTC with relative ease.

As it stands today, Chrome is a leader in pushing for future-tech Web technologies, and thanks to Chrome OS, which runs the browser as the operating system and the Web is the only platform available, Google has become even more heavily invested in developing the Web to compete with the native code that powers proprietary OSes.

The Web as platform -- no, really While developers have said for years that the Web is the platform, Google took that literally and in 2009 transformed Chrome into an operating system. Suddenly, the Web was the only platform that the computer could run, or needed to run.

This Web-centric approach also became the first time that Google took an aggressive hand in co-developing hardware, with the prototype Chrome OS laptop Cr-48. It was a step heavily cribbed from Apple's designs, but that wouldn't matter over time as Google expanded its Chromebook partner base to include Acer, HP, and Samsung, and designing internally the high-end Pixel.

This year, Chromebooks have defied PC sales trends by grabbing 20 to 25 percent of the sub-$300 laptop market in the US.

Occasional tarnish on Chrome One of the most remarkable things about Chrome is that Google rarely has Google made any missteps with the browser, but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

The most notorious blemish on Chrome's record was its sponsored post campaign, which actually violated at least one of Google's own search engine rules.

High-end Chrome OS: Google's Chromebook Pixel (pictures)

See all photos

Marketing shenanigans aside, the browser's development has been tight. One unforced error is Google's decision to restrict Chrome to Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and above. Android's heavily-critiqued fragmentation and the lack of Chrome by default will slow the browser's mobile adoption since many Android users still have pre-Ice Cream Sandwich handsets.

Another issue that could blow up in the years to come is that new technologies developed by Chrome have rarely received a warm welcome outside of Google. Chrome's Native Client for faster and safer porting of native code to the Web is still used only by Chrome. The new Dart programming language isn't even well received by the Google faithful themselves.

Smaller mistakes include support for Google Gears, which was eventually phased out in favor of HTML5. To its credit, Gears -- for getting Web apps to work offline -- went public a year before Chrome debuted.

Google was notoriously slow to adopt Do Not Track, which is growing in importance for Web privacy advocates but hardly a major feature. It also makes some people uncomfortable that Google Search in the "Omnibox" combined search-and-URL bar sends your search result data to Google by default.

Shiny future for Chrome Five years on, Chrome is a cross-device Google gateway, the only major browser available on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, and iOS. The iOS version, which doesn't contain the full browser stack and so is a more limited version of the browser, nevertheless gives Google services a shot at making some inroads with Apple's baby.

Google's co-development of WebKit with Apple and others ended recently when Google decided to fork WebKit to create its own rendering engine, Blink. This could go a long way towards staving off the fear that some people had of developers coding for WebKit, instead of the Web, as they used to have to do with Internet Explorer's Trident engine.

The Chromecast streams the Web to your TV. Photo by Dan Graziano/CNET

Google also just introduced an unexpected major hit, the $35 Chromecast HDMI dongle for streaming content from the Web to your TV. This could include Web pages, as evidenced by a recent build of Chrome on its Beta channel.

But as HTML5 standards solidify and the implementation of that technology proceeds, the big thing to watch Chrome for will be its push of the Web-as-platform. Chrome Packaged Apps, which allow the Web to run as an app independently of the browser, were introduced to Chrome's developer's channel earlier this year. They follow the Native Client apps that you can get from the Chrome Web Store. And Google will be interested in flipping those "stock Android browser" users over to Chrome as it brings the mobile versions of the browser closer to parity with the desktop versions.

For many people, though, the final verdict simply comes down to: which browser do you use as your default?

"We would've been satisfied if we had introduced enough competition to make all the other browsers better," said the longtime Chrome team member Erik Kay.

Comparing Web browsers from five years ago to those of today, 2008 to 2013, it's obvious that Chrome has radically altered the Web. The next five years could well be about Chrome radically altering your desktop.