PRINCETON – Ten years after its birth, Google is threatening to re-open the “Browser Wars” of the 1990’s, when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer eliminated its rival, Netscape’s Navigator. This time, however, it is Google’s Chrome that promises to transform the economics underlying the entire software industry, and not only because of its technical innovation in linking very different kinds of software to an Internet browser. In doing so it eliminates the need for a program such as Windows, which previously controlled access to every kind of software.
Google’s new technology is impressive, and will no doubt prove convenient for many consumers once the initial security problems are resolved. But the fundamental innovation lies elsewhere. Chrome is a breakthrough because it offers a completely novel approach to a dilemma created by the legal and regulatory regime of competition policy in the world’s two major legal jurisdictions, the United States and the European Union.
Between 1995 and 1997, Explorer almost completely eradicated Navigator, although Navigator had initially opened up the World Wide Web for most users and its dominance appeared unassailable. The major advantage of Explorer was not so much a technical one, but rather that Microsoft’s Windows provided the operating software for the overwhelming majority of personal computers. As a result, an Internet browser – and, indeed, other media software – could be integrated into the Windows framework as an entire software package.
The ability to have operating systems and software bundled together made life much easier for the average consumer. You simply got everything you wanted (and probably much more) with the purchase of a computer. But this also reduced the possibility of choice, of selecting and combining different software. Microsoft’s critics have complained endlessly about this, claiming that the browser’s integration into the operating system drove out inherently superior software solutions.