Google Inc. reignited the Web browser wars Tuesday, releasing a competitor to Internet Explorer nearly a decade after Microsoft Corp. used its monopoly powers to win control of the market.
When Microsoft crushed Netscape, it wasn’t a fair fight. But this time, experts say, the software giant has found a strong rival in Google and its new product, Chrome.
The winners could be consumers as the two companies try to outdo each other with new features to lure Web surfers, said Robert Lande of the American Antitrust Institute.
“It’s wonderful for America to see these two companies competing vigorously,” said Lande, a University of Baltimore law professor. “I hope Microsoft will fight back fairly.”
Google faces a major challenge in trying to eat into Microsoft’s market with Chrome, available in a test, or beta, version. But, backed by its lucrative Internet search and advertising businesses, the company based here is a much stronger competitor than Netscape was during Browser Wars 1.0.
Microsoft is still somewhat restrained by court oversight from a federal antitrust case that arose from the company’s heavy-handed assault on Netscape in the 1990s, according to legal experts. The Redmond, Wash.-based software giant also is hindered by a continuing European Union investigation of allegations that it improperly excluded rivals by bundling Internet Explorer into the Windows operating system.
Despite those constraints, its browser still helps almost 3 of every 4 Web surfers jump from site to site.
At a news conference in Mountain View on Tuesday, Chrome’s developers promoted it as a speedier, safer and more reliable way to navigate the Web that will give consumers more and better options. Chrome, in the works for about two years, was first tested on thousands of finicky Google employees -- including co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
The browser, which is available at www.google.com/ chrome, could extend Google’s lead in its core business because Chrome users can set Google as their default search engine, looking up terms by typing them directly into the browser’s address box. (Chrome also lets users select rival search engines.)
But because the browser is the direct path to the Web, many question why Google took so long to build its own. Brin said the company wanted to be large and strong enough to tackle the project.
“We want several browsers that are viable and substantial choices,” he said.
Google has given technical and financial support to the Mozilla Foundation, which makes the only browser that has chipped away at Internet Explorer’s lead: Firefox. Brin said Tuesday that Google would continue to back Mozilla but that it wanted to create its own browsing experience, which it did using some of the freely available software code behind Firefox and Apple Inc.'s Safari browser.
Analysts said Chrome was a potentially powerful challenger to Internet Explorer, but it’s also an important part of Google’s broader run at such Microsoft cash cows as Office. Google executives hope that Chrome will smooth the transition from using software on the desktop to using free versions online. They expect Chrome to play a key role in distributing Google’s online programs, such as its calendar, word processing and spreadsheets.
“I think we’ll see more and more Web applications of greater sophistication,” Brin said.
Google faces an uphill battle against an entrenched opponent. Internet Explorer is preloaded on personal computers from the world’s top five manufacturers. Google would not say whether it was pursuing distribution deals but noted that it has in the past, such as the agreement with PC maker Dell Inc. to include its search software.
By rolling out its own Web browser, Google is trying “to take control of its own destiny,” Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Jeffrey Lindsay said.
“All of Google’s access to its customers and all of its access to its advertisers is dictated through the browser,” he said. “If someone else has control of the browser, technically Google has a vulnerability.”
The Microsoft antitrust case will hang over the new browser battle, making both companies wary of improperly using their clout -- Microsoft in the operating system and Google in Internet search, said Harry First, a New York University law professor who is writing a book about Microsoft’s antitrust cases. But he doesn’t think Microsoft will be significantly constrained, noting that the court oversight hasn’t prevented the company from maintaining its dominance in the browser market.
Microsoft said Tuesday that it was ready to battle.
“We think competition is a great thing,” said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager of Internet Explorer.
A federal court found that Microsoft didn’t fight fairly against Netscape, the Web browsing pioneer that had a dominant share of the market in the mid-1990s. Desperate for a beachhead on the Internet, Microsoft leveraged its Windows operating system to force computer makers to include Internet Explorer. The move violated an earlier antitrust settlement and led to suits by the Justice Department and a group of states, including California, in 1998.
Microsoft settled the case in 2002 and agreed to stop anti-competitive behavior. It has been under court supervision, which is scheduled to expire in November 2009.
Google tried to take advantage of the court oversight two years ago, complaining that the search box on Internet Explorer was preset to Microsoft’s search engine. The Justice Department dismissed those concerns, saying the default browser could easily be changed.
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U.S. market share of Internet browsers
Microsoft’s Internet Explorer: 72.15%
Note: Numbers don’t add to 100% because of rounding.
Source: Net Applications
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