Google Chrome set to take on Windows

Is Chrome and Google's hosted Web apps the threat Microsoft has been worried about since the 1990s?

Last week's unveiling of a new browser is the latest in a series of moves by Google to rid the world of Microsoft Windows, according to analysts.

In fact, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft in Washington, the new Chrome browser could be the key component of Google's plan to convince consumers and business users to replace Windows-based software with hosted Web applications.

"This is the potential threat that Microsoft has been worried about since the 1990s," Rosoff said. "This is Google trying to really push applications to the Web and make that the way people do computing."

Google began offering a beta version of the new open-source browser on its Web site last week.

Chrome includes a new high-performance Java-Script engine and Google Gears, which will let users store and access Web applications off-line. The browser is powered by the WebKit open-source rendering engine, also used in Apple Inc.'s Safari browser, and includes unspecified Firefox components.

At a press briefing, Sergey Brin, co-founder and technology president at Google, said he expects Chrome to serve as a strong vehicle for running Web applications. "I wouldn't call Chrome the OS of Web apps," Brin said. "It's a very basic, fast engine to run Web apps."

Google likely won't position Chrome simply as a competitor to established browsers from vendors like Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple and Opera Software, noted Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner Inc.

"It's about the Web apps battle," Valdes said. "It's about having a platform that will support the next generation of Web apps."

Google spent two years making sure its system could overcome the growing inability of current technologies to run new online applications. It was "definitely a strategic initiative," Valdes said.

Earlier steps in Google's long-term plan to kill Windows include the 2006 launch of the Google Apps hosted applications suite. That offering includes the Google Docs collaboration tool, Gmail e-mail software, Google Calendar, the Talk instant messaging and voice-over-IP application, and the Sites wiki service.

Google is also expected to soon unveil an online storage offering.

Corporate IT managers have so far been unenthusiastic about replacing packaged software with Google's Web-based offerings. Robert Ford, CIO at Virgin Entertainment Group Inc., said Chrome likely won't change that view, at least at Virgin.

Although Chrome is impressive, "there would have to be astronomical performance improvements for us to switch," Ford said.

He noted that IE is the Los Angeles-based retailer's corporate standard, and developers there are expert in Microsoft .Net-based technologies. "I don't see any reason to challenge our IE standard," Ford said. "I'd have to make sure Chrome worked well with all of our other apps. What is the business value in that?"

In a statement, Dean Hachamovitch, IE general manager at Microsoft, said the company expects most users to continue turning to Internet Explorer, which holds about 72% of the browser market, according to Net Applications Inc., an Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Web metrics research firm.

Sheri McLeish, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., said that Chrome "is not compelling enough to erode Microsoft's dominance. Too many IT shops are comfortable with IE."

McLeish noted that persuading users to switch browsers is a difficult task for any vendor. Even Microsoft has faced challenges getting users to upgrade to new versions of IE, she said.

Rosoff added that Google also faces a significant challenge in finding ways to distribute the new browser.

"Google is a powerful brand, but they do need a way to distribute the browser," he noted. PC makers, an obvious potential distribution path, may be wary of replacing Windows with Web-based applications.

Eric Lai, Gregg Keizer and the IDG News Services' Juan Carlos Perez contributed to this story.

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