When Google took a video camera to Times Square in 2009 and asked
passers-by what a browser is, most of the answers were hilariously
incorrect, from "a search engine" to "broadband" to "Yahoo."
even if consumers are not so sure what Web browsers are (programs like
Internet Explorer and Firefox), they have become a crucial business for
tech companies like Google and Microsoft. That is because they are now
the entry point not just to the Web but to everything stored online,
like Web apps, documents and photos.
And as the cloud grows more
integral, both for businesses and people, the browser companies are
engaged in a new battle to win our allegiance that will affect how we
use the Internet.
It's an echo of the so-called browser wars of
the 1990s, when Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator fought for
dominance on the personal computer. This time, though, the struggle is
shaping up to be over which company will control the mobile world - with
browsers on smartphones and tablets. Entrenched businesses are at
stake. Google's browser-based business apps, for instance, threaten
Microsoft's desktop software, and mobile Web apps threaten Apple's App
"Twenty years ago, we didn't know how the Internet was
going to get used by people, and we for sure didn't know about mobile or
tablets," said Marc Andreessen, co-founder of the first major browser,
Netscape Navigator, and an investor in Rockmelt, a browser start-up.
"Mobile is a whole new level of reinvention, so it feels like we're in
the most fertile time of invention since the early '90s."
give Web companies more control over how people use their products, and
data about how people use the Web, which they can use to improve their
products and inform advertisers. Faster browsing leads to more Web
activity, which in turn leads to more revenue for Web companies -
whether searching on Google or shopping on Amazon.com, which built a
Kindle browser, Silk.
As Mr. Andreessen put it, "Why let something
be between us and our users? Let's have as much control of the user
experience as we can have; make sure our services are wired in."
Chrome browser, for example, makes Google searches faster and simpler
because people can enter search queries directly into the address bar.
And its apps - like Gmail, Drive for file storage and Docs for word
processing - are all accessible through any browser.
it much easier for you to search, browse the Web and use Drive, Docs
and apps, and we are fortunate to be in a position where when people do
those things, we do better," said Sundar Pichai, senior vice president
of Chrome at Google. "Chrome is a platform, the underlying layer on
which all our cloud operations run."
Most people use either
Chrome, Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox or Apple's
Safari. In the biggest disruption to the market in 15 years, Chrome last
spring toppled Internet Explorer as the most popular browser in the
world, despite the fact that it does not come loaded on computers as
Explorer and Safari do. It now has 36 percent of the global market,
while Internet Explorer's share has dived to 31 percent, according to
StatCounter, which tracks browser market share.
A host of smaller
companies, like Rockmelt and Opera, are also trying to grab market
share, largely by focusing on mobile devices.
are not lucrative businesses. Some, like Firefox, earn money from search
engines like Google and Microsoft's Bing that pay when people use the
search bar built into the browser.
"No one is doing a browser to
make money," said David B. Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business
School who was co-author of a book about the first browser wars.
"Suddenly now, the browser has become the interface for the cloud more broadly, not just for traditional Web sites."
their search for dollars, browser companies are redesigning their
products to follow consumers to mobile devices, social networks and
For example, new mobile browsers let people
swipe through tabs with their fingers, automatically resize or zoom in
on Web pages so they fit a phone's screen and load pages faster than
older mobile browsers. Some also sync with other devices, so things like
most-visited Web sites, passwords and credit card numbers are available
Nonetheless, browsing the Web on a mobile device is
still inferior to using the desktop Web or smartphone apps. Apps, like
those downloaded from Apple's App Store and Google Play for Android
devices, have more exciting features, are faster to load and are better
optimized to small screens.
But technologists say that mobile
browsers will improve when HTML5, the new set of tools for designing Web
sites that has been in development for years, becomes pervasive. That
is because its technologies enable Web sites to be as functional and
visually rich as apps are today, with features like advanced video or
the ability to read a Web site offline.
"If HTML5 really starts to
take off, then it certainly is possible that mobile browsers could
become much more significant," Mr. Yoffie said. "That world is not here
today, but it's one that people are betting on for tomorrow."
few people have so far downloaded Chrome to mobile devices, Mr. Pichai
says Google hopes that with a better mobile browser, Internet users will
be able to do more complex things, like shopping or playing games, on
the mobile Web.
Microsoft is also betting on HTML5. Its latest
version of Internet Explorer is designed with tablet-size touch screens
in mind. It wants to encourage software developers to build Web sites
that are more app-like, such as responding to finger gestures, said Ryan
Gavin, general manager for Internet Explorer. On the new browser, for
instance, readers of news articles swipe to turn a page instead of
touching "next page" with a fingertip.
Firefox is trying to
incorporate the social Web in its latest version, with a sidebar that
shows updates from services like Facebook and lets users chat without
switching between tabs or apps.
Rockmelt, the start-up, has
reimagined the browser most noticeably. Its new iPad browser, instead of
showing the blank space inside a typical browser, incorporates images,
posts and articles from around the Web.
"All the problems with the
desktop browser, that it is a big, dumb, empty window, other companies
just took and put on mobile," said Eric Vishria, Rockmelt's co-founder
and chief executive. "But there's been a shift to a whole new generation
of visual interfaces."
Though more people probably know what a
browser is today than when Google interviewed passers-by back in 2009,
browser companies nonetheless say their goal is to do their job well
enough that people forget about the browser.
© 2012, The New York Times News Service