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Microsoft won the first iteration of the browser war not with a superior product but through the inescapable ubiquity of Windows and Internet Explorer. But as a second battle looms on the horizon, it appears that the fight will hinge not on usability or fancy features but on security and privacy.
And, unlike its nasty competition with Netscape in the 1990s, this time around Microsoft is facing not one, but two challengers in Mozilla's Firefox and Google's nascent Chrome browser. Google on Monday announced the imminent release of a beta version of Chrome, which boasts a slew of security and privacy elements, including a private-browsing mode and separation between tabs opened in the same browser window.
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Mozilla has grabbed a considerable amount of market share and attention from IE during the last four years by touting Firefox as a safer, more reliable alternative. That campaign has been remarkably effective, with Firefox going from a standing start to owning about 20% of the browser market, according to statistics gathered by Net Applications. Firefox 3, released earlier this year, has taken that emphasis on security even further with the inclusion of a number of new features such as anti-malware and anti-phishing capabilities and the ability to flush all of your private browsing data from the browser's memory with one click.
However, despite all of the positive vibes and the giant group hug from the press for Firefox over the years, Microsoft has still retained nearly three-quarters of the browser market, thanks mainly to IE's inclusion with every copy of Windows. The latest beta version of IE 8, which hit the streets last week, has more than its share of security and privacy mechanisms, such as the InPrivate browsing mode, which essentially leaves a zero footprint of a user's browsing session. Great idea, and one that the folks at Google clearly dug too.
As with any release from Google, there is sure to be an outpouring of hype and breathlessness surrounding Chrome's debut, but the reality is that the new browser is unlikely to have much of an effect on either IE or Firefox anytime soon. The competition between IE and Firefox has shown us that even while working with what was a vastly inferior product for several years, Microsoft still has the muscle and know-how to hold the line until reinforcements arrive. And now that those reinforcements, in the form of IE 8, are in place, Microsoft will go about the business of trying to take back what everyone in Redmond believes is IE's rightful ownership of 90% plus of the browser market.
The still-significant market share lead that IE holds over Firefox shows quite clearly that most users just can't be bothered to find an alternative application for something that's already sitting on their desktops. It's much easier just to keep running IE.
Had Chrome arrived in 2003 or 2004 when Microsoft was struggling mightily with IE's reputation as a massive security liability, it might have taken up all of the slack that Firefox eventually did with its emphasis on security, reliability and ease-of-use. At that point, Firefox was a revelation and Chrome could have been right in the mix, as well. But Firefox already has won over pretty much everyone who pays any attention to security, not to mention the entire knee-jerk anti-Microsoft crowd. Some of those folks may well give Chrome a chance, but the idea that it's going to do for browsers what Gmail did for email or what Google Maps did for navigation is a misguided one.
Google has shown a remarkable knack for winning the hearts and minds of Web users with simple, elegant applications that just work. Users have even overlooked some pretty questionable privacy decisions from the company along the way. But if Chrome doesn't end up being a fairly large step beyond what's already available in both IE 8 and Firefox 3, I don't see it being much more than a curiosity for the time being. That's not to say that Google won't at some point shine it up and make it a more attractive alternative to IE or Firefox, but those two browsers already have staked out the security and privacy high ground pretty well right now.