To judge from the thousands of articles that followed Google's release of its Web browser, Chrome, one thing was clear: A browser war is on. But now that a month has passed, average users could be excused for wondering what all this buzz was about, and whether switching to a new browser is actually worth the effort.
So what does Chrome actually mean for the everyday Web surfer? Right now, not much – but a few years out, Google's browser could mean a whole lot more.
The reason: Chrome was built to be the browser of the future, or, more specifically, the browser for a Google future. The search-engine giant expects a global shift toward Web-based applications – services that are nearly identical to Microsoft Word and Excel, but that tap into the concept of "cloud computing," where programs operate exclusively on the Internet.
"The process of moving to Web-based applications is well under way already," says Rafe Needleman, editor of CNET's webware.com. "The number of people relying on Web-based e-mail, for example, is really high. This all just sort of happened."
Tech websites disagree on how much faster, but the consensus holds that Chrome speeds past rival browsers such as Firefox and Internet Explorer (IE) – especially when it comes to Google's own websites, such as Gmail and Google Docs. Of course, even major improvements in efficiency are often measured in seconds or milliseconds – far too small to make a huge difference in people's lives.
Another big feature, and the one most important to casual users, involves the tabs many people create to open multiple websites within a single window. Whereas Firefox and IE treat each tab as a branch of the main browser window, Chrome runs as if each tab were a window all its own. So, if one of Chrome's tabs crashes, it doesn't take all of the other tabs down with it.
This is nice if you're opening a bunch of YouTube videos simultaneously, or, say, editing a Google document and a spreadsheet in different tabs. Both Firefox and Internet Explorer have announced plans to include similar features in future versions.
Beyond that, though, the differences between Chrome, Firefox, and IE are mostly cosmetic. All three are generally regarded as safe, though Chrome, which is still in its "beta" testing version, has had a few bugs emerge in the days following its release. Some people prefer lesser-known browsers, such as Firefox and Chrome, over IE for the simple reason that fewer hackers bother to sniff out vulnerabilities in the less popular programs.
"[The upcoming] Internet Explorer 8 has some pretty cool new security features, and there will probably be even more new ones in the future," Mr. Needleman says. "Every new product learns from its predecessors and competitors."
Perhaps the most telling statistic comes from Net Applications, which tracks browser usage. It estimates show that Chrome's market share has barely bobbed over 1 percent in its debut month. And don't expect a wave of converts anytime soon. For the past eight years, the browser war has been an incremental fight. Google doesn't seem too worried. Even if people never download Chrome, its presence will inspire programmers to create more online application, the company hopes. So, if the company's vision of the Web comes true, Google stands to reshape the online world in an even more drastic way than it already has.
"Chrome will have a fairly large impact on the robustness of Web-based applications," says Needleman, “even if people don't use Chrome itself."