Google has released a plug-in that embeds its Chrome browser into rival Microsoft's Internet Explorer, a move one analyst said may be an admission by Google that getting users to switch is harder than it anticipated.
Dubbed Google Chrome Frame, the open-source plug-in can be used with Internet Explorer 6 (IE6), IE7 and the newer IE8, said Google in a blog post introducing the new software.
"One challenge developers face in using these new technologies is that they are not yet supported by Internet Explorer," said two Chrome engineers and a Chrome product manager on Google's Chromium blog. "Developers can't afford to ignore IE - most people use some version of IE - so they end up spending lots of time implementing workarounds or limiting the functionality of their apps," said Amit Joshi, Alex Russell and Mike Smith, all of Google.
The three were right about IE's popularity: according to the most recent data from metrics firm Net Applications, IE accounted for 67% of all browsers used last month. Mozilla's Firefox, at No. 2, held a 23% share, while Chrome owned just 3% of the market.
Developers can tell IE to flip the switch to Chrome Frame with a single HTML tag on their sites or in their applications' HTML code. Users, however, must install Google Frame manually.
Google portrayed Chrome Frame as a boon to developers and users. "We believe that Google Chrome Frame makes life easier for Web developers as well as users," said Joshi, Russell and Smith. Others speculated that the move might be a way for Google to sneak into systems now running only IE.
However, Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester Research, saw it differently.
"Google's realising that the potential to get people to move off IE is harder than it thought," McLeish said. "Clearly, Google is gunning for Microsoft in all its business, but this is an unexpected path to take for what seemed like an effort on its part to offer a full alternative to IE."
In McLeish's eyes, in fact, Chrome Frame, while good news for developers and even users, is an admission by Google that it won't be able to tempt many IE users, especially those running it within businesses, into switching.
"It might give Google more exposure within an enterprise setting, where it lacks the kind of administrative tools that Microsoft offers for IE," she said, "but what's the motivation for people to migrate to Chrome when they can get some of its benefits within IE? I think its message to get people to migrate is actually decreased. I'm just not sure where Google is going with this."
Google seemed to know. In an entry on the company's Wave developer blog, Lars Rasmussen and Adam Schuck of the Wave team said Chrome Frame was an answer to their prayers.
"We could continue in this fashion, but using Google Chrome Frame instead lets us invest all that engineering time in more features for all our users, without leaving Internet Explorer users behind."
Google Wave, which the search giant introduced in May, is the company's collaboration and communication tool that combines features from Internet staples such as email, instant messaging and document sharing. Wave is built on Google Web Toolkit using HTML 5, which IE doesn't support, but can with the Chrome Frame plug-in.
Microsoft's IE6 is the most vulnerable to hijacking by Chrome Frame. The eight-year-old browser has been the target this year of a 'Kill IE6' campaign by website operators and designers, and has even received the cold shoulder from Microsoft. Last month, Amy Bazdukas, Microsoft's general manager for IE, used the phrase "Friends shouldn't let friends use IE6" to describe the company's eagerness to convince users to move on.
The stumbling block, said Bazdukas at the time, was the enterprise, where IT administrators are loath to update workers' web browsers for fear of breaking applications and intranets created with IE6's quirks in mind.
"In a way [Chrome Frame] could be great news for IT," McLeish admitted. "They could give users an alternative browser without having to go through the migration and support issues."
She still wasn't sold on Chrome Frame, however. "The open question for enterprises is around security," she said, noting that companies would have to apply updates for not only IE, but also for Google's plug-in.
"All in all, I don't think it's a very aggressive move," McLeish concluded. "Google's going to have to do more to usurp Microsoft."
The Chrome Frame plug-in requires IE6, IE7 or IE8 on Windows XP or Windows Vista, and can be downloaded from Google's site.