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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Will Chrome Make Other Browsers Better?

Of all the responses to the Chrome announcement, three stood out for me.

1. The most obvious approach is to download it and try it, as I've just done. If you like it, predict world domination for Chrome! The thing is lightning fast, and bound to improve. So the commenter on the previous post, Mark, makes a compelling case when he argues: "...while my [Twitter] friends are hardly a representative sample of anything other than agency technogeeks, so far they are blown away with Chrome's speed. Having found Firefox agonizingly slow lately, I would be wary about making negative assumptions about its [Chrome's] popularity." To me personally, this is a compelling argument. I've only been using Chrome for ten minutes, and already I feel some reluctance towards returning to plodding with Firefox. But the question remains, does this matter in terms of market share. 

2. So as a reality check, we have the "it's all pie in the sky" position that reminds us that this creates further chaos in the marketplace but may not be a widely adopted solution. This is Hank Williams' "IE 6 still has 25% share" argument. Inertia is enormous, goes this argument. So Chrome won't pick up share from incumbents, is the logical extension of this argument.

3. An intriguing third possibility opens. Now I am with Hank that the mad dash for Chrome is only going to add up to so many users, at the end of the day. I think many of us early adopters have sort of had our fill of wheedling folks to switch: from Hotmail to GMail, from IE to Firefox, from AOL to anything but, etc. A little voice inside us says: hey, let them surf more slowly. Let their system crash. I'm tired of being the advocate for things that are obviously better (to me). You can lead a horse to water... until even the effort of leading gets too onerous. But what if those horses, sticking with their incumbent browser, could get most of the benefit of Chrome anyway, because new versions will incorporate Chrome's best open-source code elements? That's sort of Dana Blankenhorn's take. Other browsers will use the code, and get better, too. For this scenario to play out in a way that keeps Firefox's share where it is, though, Firefox will need to release a Chromey version 4 in fairly short order, or risk bleeding users over to Chrome. Meanwhile, it is hard to imagine that Microsoft would make major changes to IE to make it suck less in a meaningful way, especially not adopting Google's code elements. So the potential scenario is in place where the performance gap between IE and all other browsers in the marketplace becomes so significant that most of the inertia, non-power-users see the gap and switch out of IE. Are inertia products like Hotmail and IE really just going to hang onto share forever if the gap in functionality is so wide? Hmm, probably for a fairly long time for anyone over the age of 50 (or with a stick-in-the-mud mindset). What we have is the real prospect of a divided user base -- half the world using stuff that sucks, the other half using something that's obviously faster, better, and less error prone. Inertia is indeed that powerful. Luckily for some of the inertia people, all browsers stand to improve based on the new thinking Google has brought to bear on the browser market.

Conclusion: no dominant browser will emerge, and Microsoft's share won't plummet to 20%. But the part of the world that is eventually willing to actively switch to a significantly better product is now closer to half (let's call it 25-30% of the app-using public) -- it's not going to remain an obscure "preserve of the tech elite". And I think that also goes for products like GMail. Their growth is not done yet, and the fact that Google can continue to cross-promote its products gives all of them many second chances for market share gains. So, I'll stick with my second prediction -- that Chrome will reach 7.5% to 16% market share by 2010 -- not higher mainly because I think that improvements in Firefox and Safari will be enough to satisfy those users.

More nuanced viewpoints on Chrome also point to integration with Android and mobile browsing. No doubt a very important point in its own right. But if we're all going to spend all our time browsing on a smart phone, what are we going to do with all of these 23" monitors on our desks?

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