When Google took a video camera to Times Square in 2009 and asked passers-by what a browser is, most of the answers were hilariously incorrect, from "a search engine" to "broadband" to "Yahoo."
Pictured: Sundar Pichai of Google, which is hoping that its mobile Chrome browser can continue Chrome's personal-computer success.
But even if consumers are not so sure what Web browsers are (programs like Internet Explorer and Firefox), they have become a crucial business for tech companies like Google and Microsoft. That is because they are now the entry point not just to the Web but to everything stored online, like Web apps, documents and photos.
And as the cloud grows more integral, both for businesses and people, the browser companies are engaged in a new battle to win our allegiance that will affect how we use the Internet.
It's an echo of the so-called browser wars of the 1990s, when Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator fought for dominance on the personal computer. This time, though, the struggle is shaping up to be over which company will control the mobile world -- with browsers on smartphones and tablets. Entrenched businesses are at stake. Google's browser-based business apps, for instance, threaten Microsoft's desktop software, and mobile Web apps threaten Apple's App Store.
"Twenty years ago, we didn't know how the Internet was going to get used by people, and we for sure didn't know about mobile or tablets," said Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the first major browser, Netscape Navigator, and an investor in Rockmelt, a browser start-up. "Mobile is a whole new level of reinvention, so it feels like we're in the most fertile time of invention since the early '90s."
Browsers give Web companies more control over how people use their products, and data about how people use the Web, which they can use to improve their products and inform advertisers. Faster browsing leads to more Web activity, which in turn leads to more revenue for Web companies -- whether searching on Google or shopping on Amazon.com, which built a Kindle browser, Silk.
As Mr. Andreessen put it, "Why let something be between us and our users? Let's have as much control of the user experience as we can have; make sure our services are wired in."
Google's Chrome browser, for example, makes Google searches faster and simpler because people can enter search queries directly into the address bar. And its apps -- like Gmail, Drive for file storage and Docs for word processing -- are all accessible through any browser.
"Chrome makes it much easier for you to search, browse the Web and use Drive, Docs and apps, and we are fortunate to be in a position where when people do those things, we do better," said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president of Chrome at Google. "Chrome is a platform, the underlying layer on which all our cloud operations run."
Most people use either Chrome, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox or Apple's Safari. In the biggest disruption to the market in 15 years, Chrome last spring toppled Internet Explorer as the most popular browser in the world, despite the fact that it does not come loaded on computers as Explorer and Safari do. It now has 36 percent of the global market, while Internet Explorer's share has dived to 31 percent, according to StatCounter, which tracks browser market share.
A host of smaller companies, like Rockmelt and Opera, are also trying to grab market share, largely by focusing on mobile devices.
SOURCE: CLAIRE CAIN MILLER
The New York Times
The New York Times