Practically out of nowhere yesterday, it was leaked that Google was working on their very own web browser called “Chrome”, and already today a beta is available for Windows, with Mac and (hopefully) Linux versions to follow. I won’t go into the details of Google’s motivations for developing Chrome, or the specific ways in which it differs from other browsers. If you’re looking for that information, by far the most entertaining way to get it is to read the comic that introduced it. Suffice to say, at first glance it appears to be a very solid, forward-thinking effort, innovative moreso in its underlying engineering than any particular UI enhancement.
But, what sort of impact will this shiny new browser have on the market? That’s an interesting question. This release is generating a lot of buzz largely because it comes from Google. The average surfer probably doesn’t realize that new web browsers are released on a fairly regular basis, with little to no fanfare. Web browsers are everywhere you look. They’re embedded in mobile devices and gaming consoles. They power help systems for desktop applications. They might be clones of existing browsers built on the same core rendering engines, or completely unique from the ground up. They might be general purpose browsers or targeted at specific niche markets like social networking. In one form or another, new browsers appear almost every month, but usually, no one notices.
Now along comes Google Chrome, and suddenly people are paying attention. With Google’s name behind it, and given the ubiquity of Google Apps — for which Chrome seems tailor made — it stands a good chance of gaining enough market share to put it on the map alongside “the big four”: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, and Opera. If that happens, Yahoo! will no doubt extend A-Grade browser support for it, and developers around the globe will add it to their QA routines. It certainly could be worse. With Webkit’s Web Inspector and Google’s own Process Manager built-in, it’s not lacking for development tools. In fact, right now, it’s far more appealing to developers, power users, and other early adopters than to the average end user. If you’re not the kind of person who routinely keeps at least a dozen tabs open in your browser, half of them running actual web applications vs. simpler, static sites, most of the (nonetheless impressive) architectural benefits of Chrome will be completely lost on you.
So, the initial switchers are probably going to be the same group of people who are already using a browser that didn’t ship with their OS. Explorer users will continue to click on the blue “e” to get to the internet, whether out of blind ignorance, fear of change, lack of motivation, or worse, because their IT department won’t allow them to use anything else. In the meantime, Firefox, Safari, and Opera will be forced to take the hits.
Safari, being the default browser on OS X, will weather well on the Mac, though Chrome likely won’t help its acceptance on Windows, and Firefox, currently the most popular “alternative” browser, has an extensive, mature plugin library that engenders loyalty. Hardest hit may be Opera, a fast, powerful, but underappreciated innovator that’s consistently a distant fourth, and didn’t even rate a cursory nod in the Chrome comic, despite the fact that Opera already had its tabs on top (a feature touted by Chrome), and Chrome’s start page is obviously copied directly from Opera’s “Speed Dial” feature.
On the other hand, Chrome is yet another victory for WebKit, the latest in a string of products to incorporate the HTML rendering engine behind Safari. In addition to Safari on Mac, Windows, and iPhone, WebKit powers the Adobe AIR runtime, as well as the browser in Android, Google’s upcoming mobile platform. It seems WebKit is becoming the de facto rendering engine of choice, not a bad thing given its speed and strong standards support. And since Chrome supports Google Gears (how could it not?), we’ll likely see Gears available for other WebKit browsers in the near future, providing support for the major browsers (except Opera) on every platform.
So far, reaction from the developer community, including other browser vendors, has been positive, but whether Chrome attains popularity with end users or becomes primarily a reference/specialty platform for developers remains to be seen.