RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Browser wars: Should you go for Chrome?

September 15, 2008

There's a war being waged all around you, and I'll bet you haven't even noticed. Oh, you may have noticed a year or two back, when the media reported on it, but after a while even wars get dull and the press wanders off to report on Jamie Lynn Spears' baby.

There used to be

two combatants in the war. One was a behemoth, one of the world's largest, while the other was an upstart, but gaining ground over time. Now a second superpower is weighing in, and the war gets hotter still. And sillier.

It's a browser war, and it's been going on for years. First, there was Netscape Navigator. Then Microsoft came out with a browser and pushed Netscape nearly off the map. Netscape Navigator morphed into what is today Firefox, from Mozilla. Firefox has fared better against Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but Microsoft hasn't given up, either. They've battled back and forth for some time now. One would pioneer a feature, and the other would follow suit and spring ahead in some other feature. In the meantime, other browsers sprang up for special applications, such as Apple's Safari, but none posed any threat to the Big Two.

But now there's the Big Three. Microsoft's most implacable enemy, Google, has released its own browser, called "Chrome." Word is, Google came out with it in preparation for pushing hard for "cloud computing," in which, instead of having a bunch of desktop applications and data on your hard drive, you access both from a central server somewhere, presumably at Google. You can already do this with Google Tools. But today's browsers aren't optimized for that job. Running applications in a browser can bog everything down, because the browser was never designed to run all that code. Google's Chrome is designed to do just that.

Fair enough. But do any of these three browser-making companies ever recruit any real, live, small-business people for their focus groups? Firefox has been out for years. It's a fine browser. I like it a lot, and use it preferentially over Microsoft's IE. I'm a techie. I like to modify things to suit myself, and Firefox gives me a load of options. There are literally hundreds of plug-ins available for download that will do almost anything you can imagine. IE doesn't have that.

But when I visit business offices, they're not using Firefox in most of their cubicles. The employees may use it at home. Or tech support may use it. But marketing doesn't. Accounting doesn't. Shipping doesn't. They use IE. It's not a better browser. It's just considered the default browser. It has the Microsoft imprimatur, as does Windows itself. Firefox has had a vertical climb to get into business offices. Even today, it has just about 20 percent of the browser market, against IE's 72 percent. And as I say, Microsoft isn't sitting back. The new IE 8 is out in beta, and it's reputed to be better than IE 7.

So the question for businessfolk is: Why switch to anything else? Google is clearly hoping you'll see the light, but few of you seem interested in experimenting with new browsers. If you were, you would have put Firefox over the top a long time ago. Or at least given it a good boost.

But you haven't, and it's understandable why. Most people never use the full power in anything on their computers. Browsers are no different. Comparisons on the Web between the Big Three browsers focus on speed, tab arrangements and other things techies love, but which only frustrate ordinary users. A few businessfolk are first adopters, who will eagerly rush about trying to evangelize for new software, but most of us are conservative. What works, works. Our expectations are low and easily met most of the time.

I had intended to write a review of Chrome, but then I realized my mistake. Few readers would care. IE would still be king, Firefox would be the overmatched but plucky adversary, and Chrome would be the pushy and novel, but comically puzzled, nerd. For most of us, a browser is a browser. Small differences aren't enough to overcome entrenched habits.

That's why I wondered if Google had bothered to talk with the business community before spending all the time and money on its new entry, no matter its later grand plans. I even have my doubts that businessfolk will embrace cloud computing. We worked too hard to get control away from the central command of the olden days. I can't see most of us giving it back.

However, if you want to see Chrome for yourself, download it at www.google.com/chrome. Firefox is at www.mozilla.com/firefox. And, of course, IE 8 beta is from Microsoft's site: www.microsoft.com/windows/internetexplorer/beta/default.aspx. Let me know what you think.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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