I am quite frankly baffled why a huge company like Google would pay a bunch of programmers to develop yet another web browser, when we have Internet Explorer for Windows from Microsoft, Safari for Mac OS X from Apple, and the great third-party Firefox free web browser for both Mac and PC. What am I not seeing about companies that pay to develop software and then distribute it without charge?
That’s a very reasonable question, actually, and I’d like to first talk about why companies pay to produce free software, then look more closely at the probable motivations behind Google releasing “Chrome”, its new Web browser.
On the surface, it’s daft to pay someone to produce something that will not generate any profit for your company, whether it’s food for the homeless, toys for a local school or software for the online community. Bean counters definitely wouldn’t get it!
But everything has more facets than it seems, and this is a good example of that dictum: every decision has direct and indirect consequences, either of which can be good or bad. For example, when Ben & Jerry’s gives free small ice cream cones away, that’s bad for profit, but the long term, indirect consequences are that more people learn where the store is and remember B&J next time they’ve a hankering for ice cream.
It’s primarily these indirect benefits that are behind companies paying for developers to produce commercial quality applications and then distributing them without charge to the customer. Microsoft has a very slick “Windows Search” utility you can download from the microsoft.com site – for free – that really dramatically improves file searches. The benefit is that people who us the search utility can more easily find their lost files, which makes them happier and more productive. A happier customer is always a better customer later.
In addition, companies offer distribute “lite” or semi-functional versions of their commercial applications for free (Many splendid examples of this can be found in the still-evolving iPhone Applications Store). Others use it as a way of establishing or reinforcing a brand identity, and yet others use it as a subtle technique for locking you into their architecture (think Adobe Flash).
Adobe Flash is an interesting example, actually, as are Microsoft’s Windows Media Player, Apple’s iTunes music player and Google Chrome, because they all represent an attempt to gain control over a critical aspect of your computer.
That’s why Google paid a bunch of software developers to write a new Web browser even though there are very good alternatives available: if Google owns your browser, and it’s the search engine you already use, and, perhaps, it’s the online calendar and email system you use, then all the dots start to be connected. Add in a few more key Google services like the online alternative to Microsoft Office, Google Docs, and suddenly you don’t really ever need to leave your browser at all to do your day-to-day activities.
Then you’ve just left the world of a local hard-disk-based computing world powered by Microsoft (Windows + Office + Outlook) and moved to a network-based world powered by Google (Chrome + Docs + Gmail).
That’s my theory, at least. Google has some of the very best and brightest engineers and business people in the tech industry. They aren’t spending money to develop and distribute a powerful Web browser as a philanthropic effort (in fact, I believe that no companies are truly philanthropic, but that’s another story), it’s part of their long-term business strategy.
As for me, I use everything, including Google Chrome, Microsoft Office, Firefox, Gmail and even Safari, depending on what computer I’m on. You could say I’m just an agnostic observer of this latest corporate foray into control of the computing desktop.