All roads lead to Chrome

With its new browser, Google has finally taken its gaudy, chrome-plated, futuristic ray gun and pointed it straight at Microsoft's head

Google has finally done it. It's taken its gaudy, chrome-plated, futuristic ray gun and pointed it straight at Microsoft's head.

Chrome is far more than a browser. That's not just because of what it is on the surface — perfectly competent, attractively presented, fully featured, entirely modern — nor for the technologies that power it. It's easy to get excited by those, if you choose: by adopting many operating system ideas, Gears and a JavaScript compiler, Chrome is as close as you want to get at the moment to an entirely independent, self-powered, complete web operating system and application engine.

We haven't seen any of this stuff work yet, let alone taken it out for a ride on the wild, wild web. Google is proud of its pre-beta testing regime, which cleverly combines the company's own infrastructure and deep knowledge of usage models with the more fashionable automated techniques for shaking code down. Early confidence in the quality of the code may not be misplaced. Reality, however, is always nastier than you expect: will there be embarrassing security revelations? Quite possibly. Those are the breaks in this game.

The most exciting part of Chrome is the bit that Google found easiest to do, and for which Microsoft has absolutely no answer: it is open source. Exactly what sort of open source isn't clear yet, but the hip didactic comic book which prematurely blew the gaffe is uncompromising about the intent: take it, do with it what you will. It's all yours to use as you wish. (That comic book, by the way, deserves an article by itself. Read it, and you'll get a crash course in modern computing design as well as an intra-ocular injection of severely effective marketing. Compare it to Microsoft's 'Heroes Happen Here', and ask yourself which of these companies actually believes in what it's doing. The answer you get may not be entirely accurate, but it will come easily.)

Open source means different things to everyone involved. To Google, it means that state-of-the-art access to its core products, advertising-supported web services, will be widely available through multiple independent means. To users, it means an end to that nagging uncertainty over whether the browser and the operating system are ganging up on you to deliver your soul to the Corporation depot. To Microsoft, it's a closing-off of an entire corporate strategy. It's not about the technology — if you think there'll be a gnat's guff between how well IE8 and Chrome work in practice at first, think again — it's about perception. As Redmond has so clearly indicated with its Mojave Experiment, it knows perception is where the battle is really fought — and the forthcoming war lost and won.

That war will be Chrome-plated. It'll be about where applications live and run, whether we can take to the clouds or stay stuck on the terra firma of the hard disk, whether there's any more market in productivity software than there is in typewriters. The next step will be to see what Chrome machines look like, and how it feels to use a cheap laptop with Chrome and just enough Linux for life support. Beyond that — well, we'll see. There are plenty more questions; can an enterprise run in the browser? How do these ideas fit on the mobile? What new things can be delivered to the desktop?What path will Mozilla take now?

As of today, though, there's only one real question. Is the future the homepage — or the Chrome page?


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