News that Google has hired one of Sun's senior Java chaps and a bunch of browser specialists has kicked off a predictable round of speculation. Is the Big G going after IE? Will we be downloading Googlezilla this time next year?
On the face of it, there's nothing for Google in the browser market. There is no browser market. IE is clunky and has a history of security trouble; Mozilla's making inroads for those reasons and because there's a sizeable distrust -- in some cases loathing -- of Microsoft. But it's not easy to build a business case for dabbling in those waters.
Nevertheless, Google is up to something. Its strengths are data management, Web applications, targeted advertising and brand, and its most pressing need is to lock users in. It may well be the world's favourite search engine but if someone else comes along tomorrow with a better way, then we'll switch overnight. We're fickle that way.
What Google must do is get itself on the desktop. The obvious Google-shaped hole is local searching, where Microsoft has a history of conspicuous failure. A browser plug-in that amalgamated general file management with knowledge of Outlook, multimedia data types and online searching would be tempting indeed. Add extra features such as integrated email, instant messaging, automated backup to a remote storage facility and so on, and it gets very interesting. That would need considerable browser smarts, but would extend the Google brand right into the heart of the unconquered desktop where it would stick like glue.
By effectively combining local computing and the Web in this way Google would open up multiple revenue models. As well as advertising-supported and subscription services, it could start to offer very effective antivirus and other security functions -- your data, safe in their hands -- as well as any number of cleverly targeted sales opportunities based on what it knows about your personal file mix.
It would also remove one of the big barriers that stops people moving from Windows to open source. If all your important data has been painlessly stored on Google's farm and there's a neat, powerful Java browser-based management tool to retrieve it, you can skip from OS to OS without breaking into a sweat.
That's a lot of supposition from a handful of hires, but one thing's for sure. Google isn't building a browser. It has far bigger ambitions than that.