Google in Canada: The biggest Chrome challenges

Google called for open source participation, shared statistics and user feedback for its Chrome browser at IBM’s CASCON conference this week in Richmond Hill.

Alex Nicolaou, Google’s mobile engineering manager, presented an overview of Chrome and the open-source project to computer science and software engineering academics and professionals.

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“What we really needed was not just a browser, but also a modern platform for Web pages and applications, and that’s what we set out to build,” he said.

Promoting the browser’s open source nature, Nicolaou urged developers to participate. “We spend all our time in a browser at Google. It’s in our interest to make the Internet better and unless there’s some competition, unless there’s some sharing of ideas, unless there’s innovation, we’re going to have stagnation. We could go through another decade of no new significant browser releases. That’s why open sourcing the whole thing is good for us,” he said.

While communicating with Google “can be a very challenging process,” said Nicolaou, “the easy way to communicate with Google” is through numbers. “We’re all engineers, we love numbers and we use those numbers in aggregate and anonymously to make sure we solve the biggest problems first.”

As Google grows, users may hesitate to share their statistics. “There’s a natural tendency I think on part of everybody that inevitably Google will get evil…We really do take not being evil seriously,” he said.

“We can do a lot together with this stuff. If you enable Chrome to share statistics, it’s a powerful way for us to get lots of information about what lots of people are experiencing and make the browser experience better,” said Nicolaou.

“The main message I’m hoping people will leave with today is we’ve built a really cool technology in Chrome,” said Nicolaou off-stage. “The audience here, all being technical, I hope they leave with the message that we want them to take these ideas and use them in their own context and build new things that we haven’t thought of based on them. The whole point of Chrome being open source is to encourage group participation.”

Feedback from IT departments hasn’t been strong, he said. “We are not currently getting a lot of feedback from IT departments. As a beta product, we are looking right now for results from users sharing their statistics and forms of feedback like that, but we’re not so much engaging with business environments yet.”

Chrome offers benefits to small- and medium-sized businesses using Google’s cost-effective applications. “Running all those apps in Chrome would give you a very secure, very fast, very lightweight environment,” said Nicolaou.

But the advantages for the enterprise space aren’t yet clear. “Their systems are very complicated and I think each IT manager needs to look at what tools suits them the best. I think in some cases, Chrome might be a great answer because of its security properties or how efficient it is, but I’m sure in other cases there are other choices that would seem more suitable,” he said.

“Google has generated a lot of excitement,” said Forrester analyst Sheri McLeish. “But it is a beta and from an enterprise perspective it is not ready for serious consideration as a replacement for IE.” McLeish says that anybody who thinks Microsoft doesn’t know what is at stake with cloud computing on the horizon and doesn’t know how to compete accordingly “is not based in reality.”

Nicolaou addressed an audience question on whether Google is challenging Microsoft by developing a Web browser that could potentially replace operating systems for end users. “Windows is a very, very widely deployed system and I don’t think anybody harbours the illusion that it’s going to go away any time soon,” he said.

On a personal note (not reflecting the opinion of Google), Nicolaou said users run systems that support the applications they use. It’s a self-feeding cycle and niche applications will continue to be built for Windows, he said. “For a long time, there will be a market pressure towards Windows. I hope that instead what we achieve by releasing Chrome…is that the fine folk at Microsoft, who do release very good version three’s, will release faster and faster software themselves. In the end, that’s what it’s about.”

However, Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, said Chrome could be the key piece in Google’s effort to convince users to replace packaged software with Web applications. “This is the potential threat that Microsoft has been worried about since the 1990s,” he said. “You’ve got Web apps running inside isolated processes. It really sounds a lot like Google trying to take the Web application model and make it more viable as a replacement for the desktop PC application model.”

Mike Masnick, president and CEO of IT research firm Techdirt, agreed that Chrome is a key part of Google’s strategy to make the operating system obsolete. “This is probably a lot more about Google trying to help everyone move beyond the operating system market,” he noted. “Google knows that the way to beat Microsoft is to become the operating system – the Internet. You do that by relegating the actual OS obsolete.”

CASCON, the annual computer science technology conference hosted by the IBM Toronto Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS) in the IBM Toronto Lab in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada, wrapped up Thursday and was held at the Sheraton Parkway Toronto North Hotel and Convention Centre in Richmond Hill, ON.

— with files from IDG News Service

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