I have spent the past couple of evenings futzing around, off and on, with Google’s latest software offering — a new web-browsing program.
Though it is called Chrome, there is really nothing overtly glossy or glitzy about this new application, the beta (test) version of which became available for download on August 2.
Neither is there anything strikingly new or different about it, aside from the initially befuddling fact that there is no “home” button on the navigation bar to take you back to you preferred start page.
As is to be expected with an early beta release, it has some bugs, and probably one or two security holes; but, on the whole, it performs the task of web browsing satisfactorily enough that I would recommend it for use as your back-up web browser.
What is really interesting about Chrome is not what shows up on your screen, but what is going on in the behind the screen, as it were.
As most people know, Google has expanded from its original identity as a web search engine to become a large-scale, on-line application service provider.
Beyond the usual web applications like search engines, web mail and personal home page hosting, they have moved into a whole range of on-line software service provision — like the Google Docs word processing service, which, as a matter of fact, I am using to write this article, within the Chrome web browser itself.
It stands to reason, then, that sooner or later they would look to develop their own, customized web browser.
While there may, at present, be little functional difference to the end user whether he or she uses Internet Explorer or Firefox or Safari or Chrome to access Google’s web applications, differences could quite conceivably start turning up in the near future.
And those differences could pose a problem for Google.
At the moment, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer — depending on whose figures you accept — controls something between 70 to 80 per cent of the web browser market, with its main competitor, Firefox, having something like 20 per cent.
So Google dominates the web services market, while Microsoft dominates the market for the web browsers that access those services.
That is a situation that could endanger Google’s ambitions in the “cloud computing” environment of the future.
Cloud computing is basically told “mainframe” computing network of the ‘80s — lower-power, end-user terminals connected to a big, smart central computer that does all the real computing work — writ larger, and better and faster than was ever conceivable in those days.
When you use applications like Google Maps or Google Docs, you are engaged in just that kind of computing — your computer’s web browser is making information requests to a huge, centralized computer server farm, which then does all the complicated crunching involved in that request, and sends the result back to you.
Your own machine’s computing power is not a key factor in this information exchange, nor do you need an specialized software on your hard drive. All you need is a web browser capable of processing and presenting the data sent back to you.
And therein, of course, lies the potential threat to Google, as it moves to dominate the online application market.
Its online application services are a direct challenge to Microsoft’s dominance in crucial software markets, like word processing, spread-sheeting and Power-Pointing.
It could, in the long term, be to Microsoft’s advantage to try to translate their current dominance of the web browser market into a road block for Google, simply by quietly making their browser mildly incompatible with Google’s web services.
It is also possible that the same problem could arise without Microsoft even engineering the problem.
As Google grows the complexity and number of their services, some of them might prove to be incompatible with some newer version of Internet Explorer, and Microsoft would probably have little motivation to correct such a problem.
So Google needs a web browser whose performance and features it can control in-house.
As I say, Chrome, as it stands, does not have the look of the new, mean top dog on the block — in fact, it looks downright puppyish and clumsy.
But the same thing was said about Microsoft’s first, unimpressive little web browser, Internet Explorer 1.0, when it appeared in 1995.
It stepped into an environment where it had only one competitor, Netscape, and Netscape had a 100 per cent market share.
Nevertheless, through some good engineering and some market-fixing skullduggery on Microsoft’s part, and through some really quite astonishing blindness and incompetence on Netscape’s, Internet Explorer prevailed and Netscape is all-but-unremembered history, now.
Google has the same kind of control over internet computing today that Microsoft enjoyed over personal computing in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Microsoft, with its recent blunders like Vista, has shown it as out of touch with modern computing realities as Netscape was in the late ‘90s.
So it is just possible (though I make no claim to be a Nostradamus on this matter) that history will repeat itself, and Chrome will turn out to be the ugly little web browser that became the swan.