The internet world has been agog over Google's entry into the browser wars with Chrome. When we look back to this event several years from now with the benefit of hindsight, we might see it either as a master stroke, or as Google's biggest strategic misstep.
The potential advantages to the internet community as a whole are considerable. The web has evolved beyond its roots as a collection of HTML documents and dumb frontends to database applications. We now expect everything from a web application that we do from a desktop application, and then some more: the added bonus of connectivity to vast computing resources in the cloud. In this context, browsers need to evolve from HTML renderers to runtime containers, much as web servers evolved from simple servers of static files and cgi scripts to modern application servers with an array of plugins that provide a variety of services. Chrome is the first browser to explicitly acknowledge this transition and make it the centerpiece of their efforts, and will force other browsers to follow suit. We will all benefit.
The potential advantages to Google also are considerable. If the stars and planets align, they can challenge Microsoft's dominance on the desktop by making the desktop irrelevant. Even otherwise, they can hope to use their dominance in search to promote Chrome, gaining significant browser marketshare and ensuring that Microsoft cannot challenge Google's search dominance by building features into Internet Explorer and Windows that integrate MSN's search and other services.
Therein, however, lies the first and perhaps the biggest risk to Google. Until now, Microsoft has been unable to really use IE and Windows to funnel traffic to MSN services and choke off Google. Given their antitrust woes, they have been treading carefully on this matter. Any overt attempt by them will evoke cries of foul from many market participants. Google has been in a great position to lead the outcry, because it has been purely a service accessible from the browser, without any toehold in browser market itself.
Chrome, however, eases some of the pressure on Microsoft. If Microsoft integrates MSN search or other services tightly into IE, it will be harder for Google to cry foul -- Microsoft could point to Chrome, and any steps taken by Google to integrate their services into Chrome, as counter-arguments. In addition, any outcry from Google can now be characterized as sour grapes from a loser -- Microsoft can say, we both have browsers out there, they have one too, ours is just better, and let consumers decide for themselves.
In some sense, regardless of the actual market penetration of Chrome, Google has lost the moral high ground in future arguments with Microsoft. I wonder whether Google might have achieved all their aims better not by releasing a Google-branded browser, but by working with Mozilla to improve Firefox from within.
The third problem is one of data contagion. Google has the largest "database of intentions" in the world today: our search histories, which form the basis of Google's ad targeting. The thing that keeps me from freaking out that Google knows so much about me is that I access Google using a third-party browser. If Google has access to my desktop, and can tie my search history to that, the company can learn much about me that I keep isolated from my search behavior. The cornerstone of privacy on the web today is that we can use products from different companies to create isolation: desktop from Microsoft, browser from Mozilla, search from Google. These companies have no incentive to share information. This is one instance where information silos serve us well as consumers. Any kind of vertical integration has the potential to erode privacy.
I'm not suggesting that Google would do anything evil with this data, or indeed that the thought even crossed their minds; thus far Google has behaved with admirable restraint is their usage of the database of intentions, staying away for example from behavioral targeting. But we should all be cognizant of the fact that companies are in business purely to benefit their shareholders. At some point, someone at Google might realize that the contents of my desktop can be used to target advertising, and it might be prove tempting in a period of slow revenue growth under a different management team.
Two striking historical parallels come to mind, one a masterstroke and the other a blunder, in both cases setting into motion events that could not be undone. In 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his army, triggering a civil war where he triumphed over the forces of Pompey and became the master of Rome. And in 1812, Napoleon Bonaparte had Europe at his feet when he made the fateful decision to invade Russia, greatly weakening his power and leading ultimately to his defeat at Waterloo. It will be interesting to see whether Chrome ends up being Google's Rubicon or its St. Petersburg. Alea iacta est.