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Click of the future

Google's browser, Chrome, is likely to point the way for computing using Web-based applications.

September 05, 2008

Like a fly flitting around the kitchen, Google Inc. has pestered Microsoft Corp. with a series of free applications that nibble away at the software powerhouse's business. The lineup includes an e-mail program (Gmail), a photo application (Picasa), a word processor (Google Docs), even mobile phone software (Android). But its latest launch -- a Web browser called Chrome -- is a direct attack not just on Microsoft's popular Internet Explorer but on the heart of Microsoft's business, the Windows operating system. And even if it doesn't succeed, it points to where computing is headed, with or without Microsoft's blessing.

Browsers have long been a threat to Microsoft because they give companies such as Google a way to reach the desktops of the world's computers independently from Windows. Instead of buying a copy of Microsoft Office, people can use a browser to tap word processors, calendars, e-mail, spreadsheets and other tools available online. That's why Microsoft worked so feverishly -- and anti-competitively -- to supplant Netscape's pioneering browser with Internet Explorer. But Google took the challenge to a new level, designing Chrome to work more effectively with the growing number of Web-based applications. If you think of Chrome not as a browser but as a replacement desktop, you'll see how big a deal this could be.

Google's dominance over online searches and search-related advertising doesn't guarantee that Chrome will succeed. Consumers might balk at surrendering even more information about their Internet use to Google, whose data collection and retention policies pose real challenges to privacy. Nor does Google have a good track record outside of its search business -- Gmail, for example, has attracted only a small share of the e-mail market. But even if Chrome loses its luster, the trend is inevitable. Applications are moving onto the Web, browsers will be customized to support them, and operating systems just won't matter.

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