Google-Sony deal signals new front in browser war

One year after its debut, Chrome pre-install deal with Sony is a milestone, say analysts

A year after Google debuted Chrome with a bang, the browser may have failed to meet expectations. But recent moves by the search giant signal a new campaign in the war against rivals, analysts said today.

"From the outside, the thought last year was that Google would push Chrome a lot more than it has," said Ray Valdes, an analyst for Gartner, who said he expected Chrome to have a larger slice of the browser market 12 months after its September 2008 launch. "But with this deal, Google is signaling to the market and to competitors, that it's taking a more traditional approach to marketing Chrome."

Valdes was referring to news that Google has struck a deal with Sony to add Chrome to the consumer electronics maker's Vaio line of PCs and is exploring similar arrangements with other OEMs.

Google confirmed that Chrome will come on new Sony systems. "We're continuing to explore ways to make Chrome accessible to even more people," said a company spokesman. "We are in the process of testing one such channel with Sony."

The Financial Times, which first reported the deal, said that Google is talking with other computer makers about similar deals, while the Wall Street Journal said Sony has acknowledged it will be setting Chrome as the default browser on its Vaio-branded machines.

Although similar deals are commonplace for search engines competing for market share, this is the first time that a non-Microsoft browser has bought its way onto new PCs. "Call it the Microsoftian approach to the market," Valdes said.

"Absolutely, this is a signal by Google," agreed Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester Research. "It's significant because [such deals are] a really fast-track way to grow market share. It's got Microsoft in the position it is today."

A year after Google announced Chrome, rival Microsoft remains the dominant browser maker. Web metrics firm Net Applications puts Internet Explorer (IE) at 66.6% share of the browser market. Chrome, meanwhile, holds only a 2.9% share.

Some, including Microsoft's rivals, argue that IE owes its first-place position to its inclusion with Windows, the world's most widely-used operating system. Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, for instance, used that reasoning when it complained to European antitrust regulators; they have filed charges against Microsoft for shielding IE from competition by bundling it with Windows.

Microsoft has been forced into several concessions by the accusations, including a recent proposal that it will offer a browser "ballot screen" to European customers that lets them choose from at least five browsers -- including Chrome -- when they go online for the first time.

Last February, Google joined the EU's case against Microsoft as an "interested third party" that is allowed to offer comment to regulators.

"Google has gained a relatively low rate of conversion," said McLeish, talking about its efforts to get users to switch to Chrome. "The removal of the beta label [by Google] was a huge step forward to make people feel comfortable choosing Chrome."

The deal with Sony, said McLeish, is a milestone because Google was obviously able to convince the PC maker that its browser is a legitimate contender. "What's important with the Sony deal is that it means Chrome is real. It could pose tremendous risk to Sony if, for example, Chrome wasn't secure enough for consumers.

"So for Google to get the deal done, I'm sure Chrome had to go through some rigorous technical testing to make sure it was a viable browser," she said.

Whether the deal with Sony or other computer vendors can actually move the needle for Chrome is a different story, both analysts agreed.

Gartner's Valdes remains pessimistic about Chrome's chances. "In terms of real market adoption, it's not going to have a tremendous impact," he said. "You can't make a frontal assault [on IE], not these days. You want to do a flanking maneuver. Chrome OS is a flanking maneuver."

Chrome OS, which Google announced in early July -- but which will not be available on computers until the second half of 2010 -- will feature Chrome as its built-in browser. Google's OS, in fact, will be all about the browser, as the operating system is meant as a platform for Web-based applications.

Analysts generally see Chrome OS as a strong long-term threat to Windows' hegemony.

McLeish said Google has its work cut out for it in the browser battle. "There are three key factors in users' selection of a browser. One is brand, where Google has an opportunity. The second, how does it relate to innovation. Does the browser provide something new or different that I can't get elsewhere that will improve my Web experience?

"The third comes down to peer influence," McLeish said. "Google has brand and innovation, but [technology influencers] have not given Chrome the lift that Google would have liked."

And any IE rival, including Google, faces tremendous hurdles in businesses, which are loath to switch their workers to a different browser, especially one without the kind of management tools that Microsoft provides for IE. Nearly a quarter of computers worldwide, for instance, still run IE6, an eight-year-old browser that even Microsoft would like to see go away.

Still, these are unsettled times for browser makers, and anything's possible. "The browser market is heated up right now," said McLeish. "The choices are there, which is a great boon for users."

"There are a lot of good browsers out there," echoed Valdes. "Safari and Firefox and IE8. But they're all moving targets."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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