When in Chrome

If you own the Web, you may as well own the browser.

Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) is diving into the Internet navigation market with this morning's debut of Chrome. In a bold shot at Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) market-leading Internet Explorer, Google's open-source solution hopes to reinvent the way users consume cyberspace.

Google chose a somewhat cheesy comic-book approach in introducing the new browser over the holiday weekend, but can you blame the company? When Marvel (NYSE: MVL  ) and Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX  ) DC Comics have put out the two biggest movies of the year, why not use a 38-page virtual comic book to tell a story? If you suggest that Google techies are superheroes, it becomes all the easier to cast Mr. Softy as a villain.

And make no mistake: Microsoft is a baddie in Google's eyes.

Location, location, navigation
Browsers probably don't seem like a hotbed of fiscal activity. Microsoft, the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox, and Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) Safari are serving them up as if they were free community newspapers. However, the same thing can be said of online search, and I don't need to remind you that Google is a $150 billion company today as a result of its search dominance.

In the crudest sense, a browser is the Web's operating system, so there's plenty to gain by controlling the navigation process. The dot-com heavies know that, and that's why Google, Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , and Time Warner's AOL have devoted so many resources to creating browser toolbars and mastering desktop search.

Still, Google doesn't want to necessarily own the traffic flow. It just wants to keep the flow away from Microsoft. Even before today's launch of Chrome in more than 100 countries, Big G has been promoting alternatives to Internet Explorer. It has helped champion Firefox as a browser, and until recently, it even paid its AdSense publishers to promote Firefox downloads. It also helped promote Sun Microsystems' (Nasdaq: JAVA  ) StarOffice before it rolled out its own homegrown office-software alternative.

Firefox is no slouch. The rapidly growing browser's latest version was downloaded a record 8.3 million times the day it came out three months ago. However, with roughly 20% of the browser market, Firefox remains a distant second to Microsoft. Safari is even further back, yet Apple's solution is gaining traction with the renaissance of Macs and the booming popularity of the Safari-enabled iPhone.

Whether Google can surpass Apple or even Firefox is worth asking, but the real question is whether Google can offer another solid reason to keep the Microsoft minions from upgrading to Internet Explorer 8.

Chrome wasn't built in a day
Just as Google had to earn its way to the top with Google Earth, it'll have to work at making people pay attention to its browser. The Google name alone isn't enough to seal the deal. Plenty of Google downloads aren't exactly household names -- how many folks have heard of Picasa and SketchUp? Even the allure of Google's Web-stored Docs is still no match for Microsoft's Office suite.

I guess I'm a sucker for a good comic book, because I was on board with Chrome just a few frames in. But will Chrome be as stable and secure as promised? By offering up a multiprocess approach, Chrome shouldn't crash the way other browsers do. It will just shut down the renegade process. As long as this method doesn't make Chrome a memory hog, I'm in.

Offering enhancements in Javascripting and providing protection against phishing and malware, Chrome is built for a future that involves more than just surfing the Web for reference retrieval. It's built around the premise of cloud computing and commercial interaction. And by going open-source, using the same Webkit platform that helped it kickstart Android, Chrome is opening up the browser for third-party improvement.

Maybe it's just a matter of time before we hear stories that the nascent browser crashed or got hacked. Surely, we'll hear cynics claiming that Chrome is an elaborate ploy to let Google know you even better than it already does, so that it can target its ads with more precision.

Regardless, Google has too much at stake to take the project lightly. We all know the real aim of Chrome, and that's to keep the ball away from Mr. Softy.

Other directions to point your browser in:

Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers selection. Marvel Entertainment and Apple are Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendations. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't much of a window shopper, but he is a browser browser. He does not own shares in any of the stocks in this story. Rick is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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