Pop quiz: What is a Web browser?

A) A search engine
B) Something on the Internet
D) A computer program you use to display Web pages

The correct answer is D, but that's hardly common knowledge. Ask ten of your closest family members, coworkers, and golfing buddies, and you'll probably hear all of the suggestions above. So if nobody knows what a Web browser is, why are Google, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), and others fighting so hard to put their own product on your computer?

An Apple a day ...
For Steve Jobs and company, it's all about controlling the user experience. The iTunes music store and iPod media player became iconically successful because of their beautiful symbiosis. If you connect an iPod to iTunes, you're pretty much guaranteed smooth sailing and a pleasant trip to the checkout line that sells more music than any other outlet in the world these days, beating out retail giants like Target (NYSE:TGT) at the top of the heap.

So the Safari browser is uniquely attuned to the aesthetics and peculiar features of a Mac system or iPhone gadget -- as well as to their fans and users. It's a match made in heaven, and many of the participants don't even realize it. This works out very well for Apple.

Mo' money, mo' money for Mr. Softy
Microsoft has a different view of the situation. It's not so much about making the browser a beautiful, integral part of the computing environment, and more about protecting Microsoft's online domination dreams. Internet Explorer has the largest user base of any browser, but that's arguably because it comes preinstalled on every Windows PC sold since the dawn of the consumer-facing Internet.

This browser seems to exist only to drive users to Microsoft's Web portals, ad listings, and content. This is done by way of yet more default settings. And still, a lot of people think that Google is the browser because that's how they get around to the websites they really want to see. Microsoft's market share in these browser wars is still dominant, but shrinking fast.

Don't worry, be happy!
And Google takes a laid-back Bobby McFerrin attitude to the whole issue. Yeah, we have a browser called Chrome. No, nobody seems to know that it exists. And yeah, we're fine with that.

See, all Google want to do is to make it easier, quicker, and less of a hassle to go online. It doesn't really matter whether you're using a Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) computer or an Apple iPhone to do it. They don't care whether you're headed off to Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) or to go shopping on eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY). What matters is that you probably will perform a Google search to find your destination, and you might click on an ad or two today.

Chrome isn't meant to rule the browsing world. That's not part of Big G's plan, and likely never will be. It's not much more than a tech demo that shows off some cool new ways to get your browsing done. I'm now using a Chrome-like start page in my preferred Mozilla Firefox browser. Every browser maker is outgunned by Chrome in the Javascript performance department and fighting hard to catch up. If Google can make your online world just a little bit more pleasant to hang around in, chances are that you'll spend more time there and send more advertising revenue Google's way.

There's a master plan in Mountain View
So don't be confused when you see some new product or feature from Google that makes no sense to you. Yeah, most of what Google does is available for free to anyone, and surely require a substantial development effort to make it ready for consumption. And no, it's not always obvious how the shiny new toy is supposed to load up Google's coffers with silver and gold.

Just remember the immortal words of Ms. Sheryl Crow: If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad. A happy online consumer is a good online consumer, as far as Google is concerned. That is why the company keeps pushing the envelope with no apparent payback in sight. Many of us already believe that Google is the browser, no matter what the icon on your desktop says.

The cash is coming. It's just not always obvious exactly how.

Further Foolishness:

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.