For the first time in history, a declaration of war came in the form of a comic book. On Monday, a comic by legendary cartoonist/explainer Scott McCloud leaked onto the Web, confirming a rumor so old that many folks had forgotten about it: Google was about to release a Web browser. (For additional coverage, see "Google Chrome Web Browser"--our product review--and "Google's Chrome: 7 Reasons for It and 7 Reasons Against It.")
It's tempting to assume that Google's entry into any new market will be world-changing. It's also dangerous: For every Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Calendar, we've seen several services from the Googleplex that didn't change anything at all, such as Google Base, Google Product Search (née Froogle), Google Web Accelerator, Google Page Creator, and Google Blog Search. The company has a tendency to launch interesting stuff and then lose interest in it; unless Google works very hard to improve and promote Chrome, the program might not amount to anything more than an also-ran in the browser race.
Then again, it wouldn't be the least bit surprising if Chrome did turn out to be a great big deal. What would that mean to other companies that make browsers or otherwise compete with Google? Let's consider the contenders one by one, starting with the rival that has the most to lose.
Microsoft: The timing of the Chrome announcement sure spoiled the coming-out party for Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2; its release last week now seems like ancient history. And if Steve Ballmer and company care about whether Internet Explorer's declining market share dwindles even further, Chrome must be unnerving. Firefox's success has shown that a bunch of volunteers with a good browser can hammer away at a Microsoft monopoly that had seemed permanent. When the biggest Web company in the world comes along with a good browser, it might do far more damage.
Ultimately, though, Microsoft is surely less concerned about Chrome's potential impact on IE, a product it gives away for free, than on Windows, the one that's responsible for billions of dollars of Redmondian profit each year. As many applications continue to migrate from desktop PCs onto the Web, plenty of buzz is advancing the idea that the center of gravity in software platforms is shifting from operating systems to browsers. And Google has openly stated that it aims to make Chrome into a great foundation for sophisticated Web applications that compete with desktop programs.
Chrome won't spell tangible trouble for Windows in the next few months, or maybe even the next year. Could it evolve into a serious threat to Microsoft's operating system over time? I don't discount that scenario--and neither, I'll bet, does Microsoft.
Mozilla: For four years now, Mozilla's Firefox has reigned as Internet Explorer's most serious rival. Actually, that's an understatement--Firefox was the browser that proved that competing with IE wasn't a pipe dream. If Firefox had never existed, it's entirely possible that Google never would have thought developing a browser was worth the effort.
At this early stage in Chrome's history, it would be premature to make any predictions about its chances of chipping away at Firefox's market share, which by most accounts consists of a bit less than 20 percent of all browser users. But given the power of the Google name and distribution pipeline, Chrome is the first browser that stands a chance of displacing Firefox as the highest-profile alternative browser.
At the moment, Firefox has multiple advantages over Chrome, including legions of loyal users and the richest collection of extensions of any browser, which give it much of its power and appeal. (Chrome can't even run the Google Toolbar.) If I were Mozilla, I'd be less concerned about Chrome stealing current Firefox fans and more worried about future IE defectors' being more likely to adopt Chrome than Firefox--especially since the energy that Google has put into promoting Firefox will presumably now go into drumming up interest in Chrome. A Firefox whose marketshare stalled would be a much less compelling open-source project than one that continued to grow.
Opera: The venerable Norwegian browser remains a worthy product, and an influential one--the thumbnails of recently browsed sites in Chrome look like they were borrowed from Opera's Speed Dial feature, for instance. In market share, though, Opera is stuck at less than 1 percent. Today the company is focused on mobile Web browsing, and I'll bet it's far less curious about Chrome than it is about the potential impact of the browser in Google's Android phone OS.
Yahoo, Ask, etc.: On the Web, imitation is the sincerest form of competition. And if Google successfully uses Chrome to make its bonds with millions of Web users even stronger, Google rivals such as Yahoo might suddenly develop the urge to release browsers of their own. It's hard to imagine, though, that many companies would be able to throw as many resources at browser development as Google can. Other companies might simply reskin Firefox and add a few new features via extensions. That wouldn't be wildly ambitious, but it might be enough to compete.
Apple: Steve Jobs's company is, among many other things, a browser developer. In fact, Chrome has some Cupertino in its DNA, since it uses the Webkit rendering engine, which is the open-source version of the one Apple developed for its Safari browser. Apple released a Windows version of Safari in June 2007, but it seems to be a quirky side project rather than a key part of the company's overarching Internet strategy.
On the other hand, Google says a version of Chrome for OS X is on the way. How would Apple feel about that, especially if Chrome were to steal a meaningful number of users from Safari? It'll never tell us. But even on OS X, Safari seems to exist primarily to ensure that Macs have a solid default browser. And given the close ties between the two companies--Google CEO Eric Schmidt sits on the Apple board--Google probably wouldn't choose to wage all-out war on Safari. Bottom line: Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers might well coexist peaceably on the Mac.
In the Windows world, though, peace isn't a word that comes to mind when considering Chrome. If the new browser ends up mattering at all, it will be explosive--and absolutely nobody, Google included, can predict exactly how things will shake out.
Former PC World Editor in Chief Harry McCracken now blogs at his own site, Technologizer .