Chrome for Clunkers

Google’s ingenious plan to spruce up outdated versions of Internet Explorer.

In a little more than a year, Google Chrome, the search company’s speedy and innovative Web browser, has managed to win over about 3 percent of Internet surfers. Is that good or bad? It’s certainly not a blockbuster, but consider the hurdles Google faces. Unlike Internet Explorer or Safari, Chrome doesn’t come pre-installed on any computers. True, Mozilla Firefox faces the same problem—but Firefox, which now has about 23 percent of the market, has been around since 2004. You might also argue that Firefox captured an easy market—people who were sick of IE and wanted something better. Chrome can’t do the same; everyone who wanted to leave IE has done so already, and the only folks left to convert are those who don’t know any better.

I’m not saying that these IE holdouts are merely ignorant about the alternatives. The problem goes deeper than that: They don’t even know they’re using IE. They don’t know they’re using anything in particular—many people think that when they click on the blue IE icon, they’re clicking on “the Internet.” As Brian Rakowski, director of product management for Chrome, puts it, “People just don’t know what a browser is.”

There are no hard numbers on this, but Rakowski’s not kidding. Ask your tech-unsavvy friends or your parents which browser they use, and chances are you’ll get a quizzical look and an answer like, “I use Yahoo—or is that not a browser?” That’s what one woman told a Google rep who was stopping people in Times Square this spring to ask a simple question: “What is a browser?” Watch what happened in the video below.

Many people gave answers like, “It’s what I search through—like, to find things.” Or, “A browser is when you know what you’re looking for, and a search engine is when you’re searching for something.” Only 8 percent of people in the admittedly unscientific survey could answer the question correctly.

How do you persuade people to upgrade their browser when they don’t even know what a browser is? You hide the upgrade. That seems to be the ingenious theory behind Chrome Frame, a plug-in for Internet Explorer that Google unveiled this week. Chrome Frame does to IE what spinach does to Popeye—it instantly blesses Microsoft’s browser with the ability to do amazing things.

Chrome Frame does this by replacing IE’s guts. At the heart of every Web browser is the “rendering engine”—the code that processes and displays Web pages. About half the people on the Web are running older versions of IE—Versions 6 and 7—whose rendering engines are antiquated; they can’t process new HTML tags required by the most advanced Web applications, and they’ve got slow JavaScript engines, making it tedious to run complex programs like Gmail or Google Maps. Chrome Frame simply injects Chrome’s rendering engine into IE. After you install it, your browser will be able to do everything Chrome can do—even though you’ll still be using IE.

Google is promoting Chrome Frame to Web developers who have long felt constrained by IE’s limitations. If you want to create a site that uses lots of complex JavaScript, needs to store documents offline, or does other wondrous things, now you can do it without worry of incompatibility. When an IE user comes along, just ask him to install the plug-in—which is a lot easier than getting him to install a new browser. Plug-ins are annoying, but people are willing to install them in order to run cool stuff on the Web; just about everyone online has a version of Flash, for instance.

Why is Google pushing these Chrome injections? For one thing, it will help the company roll out Wave, the much-anticipated collaboration app that it unveiled earlier this year. Because Wave aims to mimic the responsiveness of desktop programs like Outlook inside your browser, it needs a lot more power than old versions of IE can muster. On their blog, the Wave team says that they’ve spent “countless hours solely on improving the experience of running Google Wave in Internet Explorer.” Apparently they’re abandoning all that—when Wave opens its beta program at the end of this month, IE users will be presented with a warning either to install Chrome Frame or to use Safari, Chrome, or Firefox instead. It’s possible to use Wave in IE without installing Chrome Frame, but you’ll be fed this warning first: “If you want to continue at your own peril, click here.”

The suggestion that IE causes peril certainly seems like fighting words. But a Google spokesman insisted to me that Chrome Frame isn’t a shot at Microsoft. Sure, it’s kind of sneaky, but Chrome Frame doesn’t do anything to kill Internet Explorer. Indeed, it kind of helps IE—by making Microsoft’s browser functionally equivalent to Chrome, Google is eliminating any reason for IE users to switch to something better. If IE can now do everything that Chrome can do, what’s the problem?

For Google, there’s no problem. Rakowski, Chrome’s director of project management, says that the search company has two goals for Chrome. Sure, Google would like people to actually use its snazzy browser itself. But Google doesn’t make any money from Chrome; all of its revenue comes from the Web, and its future depends on the continued improvement of the Web as a platform for applications. That’s Chrome’s other purpose—to push other browser makers to keep improving their software. If Chrome succeeds in that, Google still wins—the Web becomes faster and more stable, pushing us all to use a lot more of Google’s products. In other words, as long as the Web works well, Google doesn’t care whether you know what browser you’re using—just so long as the browser lets you keep clicking on Google’s ads.