Google Chrome: The fast browser with slow adoption

Google is dealing with internal development delays and the indifference of some consumers

The launch of Google's Chrome browser a little over a year ago brought with it a mountain of hype and expectations, with some suggesting it could be as instantly disruptive and beneficial as Gmail was to the webmail market.

After all, here was Google opening another front against Microsoft with a big and bold move, and also turning into a competitor to its close partner Mozilla, maker of Firefox, the darling browser of techies worldwide.

Positioning itself as a reluctant entrant to the market, Google stated dramatically that it had no other choice given its deep dissatisfaction with existing browsers, specifically with their speed and performance running Web applications.

This browser wasn't a side project, Google said, but rather a serious endeavor with far-reaching implications for the future of its online services and applications.

It was an epic move: the mighty Google, like Achilles, marching into battle. The problem is, Chrome hasn't precisely turned things around as the mythical hero did, mercilessly and unequivocally, on behalf of the Greeks against the Trojans.

With a modest market share of about 4 percent, Chrome, which was launched on Sept. 1 last year, hasn't yet come close to approaching market leader Internet Explorer, nor the second-most-popular browser, Firefox.

"To date, Chrome really hasn't had the success that I suspect Google had anticipated for it," said Sheri McLeish, a Forrester analyst.

As it turns out, Chrome has more than a few Achilles heels.

For starters, it doesn't exist for Mac OS and Linux users, two camps full of technology enthusiasts and early adopters. The Mac OS and Linux versions are delayed. To make matters worse, the doors of most workplaces, particularly large enterprises, remain closed to Chrome because it lacks basic features that IT departments need.

While Google will remedy these two issues at some point, there are other obstacles to Chrome's adoption that may be harder to fix.

One is the widespread ignorance among many consumers about browsers, and their tendency to default to the one that comes with their PC. Another issue goes back to a question asked repeatedly at Chrome's launch: Does the world need another browser? Or put another way: Does Chrome offer enough of an improvement to justify switching to it?

Google certainly didn't help Chrome's chances to sprint out of the gate by releasing it as a beta product that was quite rough around the edges. Not only was Chrome unstable and buggy at first, but it didn't play well with many Web sites, including some of Google's own, because Google made its release a surprise and didn't give webmasters advance notice to adapt their sites.

While Chrome's low adoption in workplaces isn't surprising, its modest popularity among consumers is more worrisome. "We haven't seen any mass exodus from consumers to jump to Chrome from other browsers," McLeish said.

Since Chrome hasn't taken the world by storm, and considering that Microsoft, Mozilla and Apple continue to enhance their respective browsers, should Google stick with this project?

"Google should stay in the game if they think they can innovate and differentiate in the long run and put enough marketing and R&D [research and development] behind the effort," IDC analyst Al Hilwa said via e-mail.

This is Google's intention, according to Brian Rakowski, a Google group product manager in the Chrome team. "There's still a lot of work to do, but it'll be pretty great," he said.

Rakowski takes exception to the idea that Chrome lacks appeal, saying it has about 30 million active users, even though it doesn't yet fully play in the Mac OS, Linux and enterprise IT segments.

"Given the remaining chunk of market that's there, we've done pretty well in a short period of time. If you look at historical browser growth rates, it's a slow process. It takes time," Rakowski said.

A big reason why it takes time is the complacency of consumers. "Most people honestly don't know and they don't care about browsers. They just want to get on the Web," McLeish said. Even Microsoft struggles with this, as many consumers resist upgrading to newer versions of IE, she said.

Hilwa's research reflects a similar reality. Consumers have been conditioned to think of the browser as an integral part of their PC and its operating system, and thus are unlikely to switch.

"Using browsers not supplied with the machine remains the province of power-users, which creates a bit of disconnect in the strategy Google has, which is to bring browser innovation to the masses," Hilwa said. "Ultimately, this might become a war about operating system platforms again before it becomes a seriously competitive browser market again."

Aware of this, Google is planning an attack from that flank with its still-unreleased Chrome operating system, which will be deeply interwoven with the Chrome browser. In addition, Google is making moves to have the browser pre-installed on PCs, as a recent deal with Sony shows.

Still, Google, horrified at consumers' ignorance about browsers, has enlisted its marketing department to help educate people. "There's a large number of people who just don't know what a browser is. That's a huge challenge for us," Rakowski said.

In the meantime, the Chrome team keeps focusing primarily on performance improvements, which are the browser's main selling points and ultimately the key reasons for its existence.

"Everything [in the Chrome browser], from the new Javascript engine to its multiprocess architecture, is designed with heavier, more intensive Web apps in mind," Rakowski said.

While this is a valid effort, the average user cares or understands little about browser speed and performance, so this is unlikely to draw many new users.

"Most of the internal stuff is really lost on the unwashed masses of users who are not going to get into the complexity of browsers," Hilwa said.

Plus, the browser is far from the only element that affects the performance of online applications and services, McLeish said. Local network bandwidth, ISP (Internet service provider) traffic, the user's PC hardware and the landing Web site's server all play a part.

Google argues that the value of the Chrome project isn't limited to its own success. As an open-source browser, Chrome can help spur innovation in browser technology across the board, which is crucial for Google, Rakowski said.

However, it's unclear to what extent it will be feasible for other browsers to incorporate Chrome code, when one hears Rakowski explain why Google decided to build a new browser instead of simply contributing to Firefox.

"There were reasons not to build on existing technology. Some of the architectural changes we wanted to make were so different and disruptive that it would have been very hard to do in existing code base and very disruptive to existing road maps and plans of these teams," he said. "You would have had to put the entire development cycle on hold while you experimented with some of these research-y things."

What's clear is that, as Chrome enters its second year, the Chrome team is moving as fast as it can, eager to release versions for Mac OS and Linux and add enterprise IT features, as well as work its way down its long to-do list.

"As soon as we get some time to breathe we'll add those things and that'll enable us to reach a whole other set of users," Rakowski said.

And when that happens, it will be not a moment too soon.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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