It's time for web developers to break out the champagne

It is somewhat amusing to realize that Google is not playing the same game as the other browser vendors. Its incentives are very different, and that makes all the difference. Google is not directly interested in increasing adoption of Chrome; it actually benefits from increased use of the web on any browser. Sundar Pichai, the Google VP in charge of Chrome, has said as much:

"We were all very clear that if the outcome was that somehow Mozilla [Firefox] lost share to Google [Chrome], and everything else remained the same, internally, we would have been seen as having failed," Mr. Pichai says.

So, journalists who are fixated on market share, like JR Raphael of PC World (not to pick on him), are missing the point:

Can Chrome Shake Up the Browser Market? ... As it stands now, Chrome holds about 3 percent of the global browsing market ... Google's hope ... is to double that share by next September—then triple it by 2011.

Chrome has already shaken up the browser market. In the year that Chrome has been out, speed has become one of the primary selling points for every major browser. The performance of every browser (and hence, every web app) has improved dramatically, and more improvements are in the pipeline. That fact—not Chrome's who-even-cares percentage market share—is the story of this year.

And the folks at Google are probably pretty happy with that. If people use a fast browser and load more web pages and use more Google products and see more advertisements, who cares if it says "Firefox" or "Chrome" in the title bar? Google doesn't.

Hell, who cares if it says "Internet Explorer"? Google doesn't. Which brings me to Chrome Frame, a plugin that runs a Chrome renderer in IE:

I wept tears of joy when I first saw this. For comparison, see IE8's native rendering of Acid3.

The Chrome renderer is activated on an opt-in basis from web developers, using a special META tag.

It remains to be seen how all this will pan out, but this is a very clever move on Google's part. It changes the economics both for IT departments and for developers:

  • Many if not most IE users are unwilling or unable to change their browser for legacy/lockdown reasons; I suspect that is the most important reason why Firefox, after all these years, is only at around 23% market share. It's not that IT departments are inherently against installing new software. They'd love to be able to deploy spiffy HTML5 apps too. But their hands are tied because they must make sure existing apps keep working. Now that they can use HTML5 apps without breaking any legacy apps, they may be a lot more open to deploying Chrome Frame than to changing browsers entirely.
  • Installing a plugin is a lot easier for end users than installing a new browser. In fact, it's a routine enough operation that I suspect many web developers will soon choose to take the Chrome Frame route rather than continue to expend time, money, blood, sweat, and tears working on hacks for native IE support. When users are presented with a dialog saying "In order to use This App You Really Want you must install the mumble mumble plugin," most of them will do it. (Flash has upwards of 90% market penetration!)

Because it was willing to sneak in the side door, ship as a plugin, and strip the chrome from Chrome, Google may be the first to have a real shot at bringing fast and standards-compliant browsing to a majority of web users.


  1. phil,

    i think your hypothesis about google leveraging performance into other browsers by making a browser themselves that is not widely used is interesting, and reminds me of how they leveraged openness into the analog TV spectrum redistribution by bidding on the bandwidth without really wanting to own it.

    and i think this plugin is an interesting development, but i remain skeptical that it will be widely used.

    what really strikes me though, is another appearance in modern times of nesting (recursion) to solve a seemingly intractable problem. god bless the universal machine!

  2. what really strikes me though, is another appearance in modern times of nesting (recursion) to solve a seemingly intractable problem. god bless the universal machine!

    Indeed. The almost infinite malleability of software is one of the reasons I love being a software engineer.