In just over 13 years, Google’s Chrome browser has grown from a new project to the juggernaut we know today. Today, Chrome is by far the world’s most popular browser for desktop and mobile. You could even say that Chrome killed Internet Explorer. So how did Google achieve this incredible feat in such a short period of time?
Most of the time, they did it from scratch. Microsoft, along with Mozilla and others, continued to build their browsers on legacy code. Google used a few existing tools to create Chrome, but for the most part their approach to the browser was completely new.
When Google entered the scene, Microsoft hadn’t really thought about reinventing the browser experience. In fact, Internet Explorer worked the same in 2008 as it did in 1998. Google intended to change all that. At first, Chrome wanted to be a complete platform for exploring the web in a new way, not just a browser. These aspirations drove Google to innovate in several key ways, eventually establishing itself with the largest browser market share in 2012.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how Google propelled Chrome to the top from 2008 to 2012. There have been three key factors: the open source nature of Chromium, the revolution in web browsing with extensions, and the rise of Android and Chromebook. This article kicks off our web browser history series, celebrating Google’s 23rd birthday on September 4, 2021.
2008: Launch in beta version
Google released the Chrome browser in beta on September 2, 2008. It was a very interesting time for technology. Smartphones were fairly new and apps weren’t much of a big deal in 2008. Already looking to the future, Google developed Chrome on the HTML layout engine, WebKit, which would support web apps like theirs. popular Maps service. At the time of the beta launch, Google did a comic as to why they made a new browser out of a sea of existing alternatives.
The comic itself is quite long at 39 pages, but the first page gives a pretty good summary of Google’s philosophy. In their minds, the experience of the navigator was completely shattered. People no longer used the Internet just to access school research papers, the Web was a big place with content to consume. Perhaps the biggest unique advantage of Chrome at the start was the sandboxing of separate browser tabs. Browser crashes were quite common, especially in Internet Explorer. Sandbox meant that if one tab crashed, the whole session didn’t end with it.
Indeed, separate tab sandboxing was an initiative that predicted the future of the web, where applications would replace web pages as the primary tool for users. With that in mind, Google took another important step by taking over browser space – in September 2008, the open source Chromium project was launched. Not only was open source in vogue at the time, it also sparked developer interest in Chrome as a project. Google knew they would need developers to speed up Chrome improvements, as well as build their gallery of upcoming extensions.
2009: Chrome OS and extensions
By 2009 it was clear that Chrome was a big deal. That summer, Google announced that they were building a complete Chrome-based operating system, aptly named “Chrome OS”. At the same time, more and more users were converting to Chrome. In July 2009, over 30 million people were using Google’s new browser. A user base of 30 million in less than a year is pretty incredible, certainly something never seen before in the browser wars.
While Chrome OS and the growing user base were a huge novelty, they weren’t the biggest Chrome story of 2009. In December 2009, Google launched the Extensions Gallery. Extensions were revolutionary at the time. This was the big turning point, where Google hoped to convince users that apps were the future of web browsing. Both users and developers loved the extensions. In just over a year, the plugins gallery had over 10,000 plugins and themes. Personalization is a deeply personal thing, and people have embraced the idea of customizing the look and functionality of their browser.
At the end of 2009, Chrome already held 5% of the market share. While this number seems low, keep in mind that this was a brand new product, struggling to compete in an established market. Themes and extensions, along with Chrome’s incredible speed thanks to sandboxing, were poised to make even bigger gains in 2010.
2010: Monetization and Chrome Web Store
With Chrome growing at an exponential rate, it was time for Google to start building on the success. In August 2010, Google started charging developers $ 5 to publish their Chrome apps to the Extensions Gallery. It was both an income opportunity and a security measure. The $ 5 fee allowed Google to implement domain verification for all new apps submitted for publication.
Throughout the year, Chrome continued to see its biggest increase in users ever. Tripling from 40 million to 120 million during the year 2010, Google legitimately threatened the first place of Microsoft for the market share of browsers. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that Microsoft hasn’t done much to prevent Chrome’s rise to the top. Instead of adding new platform independent features, Microsoft focused on deeper integration with Windows in Internet Explorer 9.
Unfortunately, most of these features added by IE9 for Windows already existed in Chrome. There is no doubt that if Microsoft released a truly redesigned version of IE in 2010, they would at least have delayed Chrome’s rise to number one.
At the end of 2010, Google launched the Chrome Web Store. Unlike the smaller Extension Gallery, this was a more polished app store for Chrome users. New developers have joined us, and Chrome has quickly become not only the fastest browser, but also the most versatile. Chrome Web Store extensions, plugins, and themes have shaped the way people use the web and even the way web content is monetized. With ad unit extensions readily available, the traditional method of monetizing web content with ads was no longer viable. This introduced whole new opportunities for Google to innovate in its other key business: advertising.
Chrome’s growth was about speed control and doing things differently than all other browsers, but Google still wasn’t happy. It was time for Chrome to get some new tricks, some dedicated hardware, and a fresh coat of paint.
2011: a new logo, Chromebooks and the tab page
From the start, Chrome had a 3D logo. As of March 2011, this design seemed quite outdated. Apple started the trend of bringing flat icons to iOS and Google didn’t want their design to look out of place. The design change was fairly minimal, but quite impactful. Keeping the same color scheme, Google flattened the Chrome logo to give it a more modern look.
In May 2011, Google launched Chromebooks. While netbooks were quite popular in 2011, the idea of a laptop without a hard drive was quite alien. Chromebooks would handle all tasks through the Chrome browser. Initially, the proliferation of Chromebooks was stopped by the launch of the Apple iPad. Fortunately, with some persistence from OEMs and tweaking from Google, Chromebooks have become a hit, especially in the education industry.
With Chrome OS now running on dedicated hardware, Google had yet another outlet to increase the user base of Chrome as a browser. Over the next decade, Chromebooks will become ubiquitous in the budget computing segment, now running both Android and Linux apps.
To crown 2011, Chrome launched another feature that will soon be standard in all browsers: the New Tab page. The idea was great, although incredibly simple. Collecting all of your favorite Chrome apps or pages that you frequently visit made sense. As people learned how to customize the New Tab page, browsing the web became easier and working more intuitive.
At the end of 2011, Chrome held nearly 25% of the market share, almost a tie for second place with Firefox. To take the final step, Google had to integrate Chrome on mobile devices.
2012: Chrome arrives on Android and iOS
Looking back, it’s incredibly surprising how long it took for Chrome to launch on Android. Android became official as an operating system in September 2008, around the same time the beta version of Chrome debuted. Given that these are two Google products with similar birthdays, Chrome should have launched on Android before 2012. However, mobile was exactly the platform Google needed to take the top spot. They didn’t want to spoil it.
In February 2012, Chrome was finally released on Android. With millions of Android devices in the market, it has been a huge catalyst to capture a lot of market share with just one move. Just four months later, Google launched Chrome for iOS. While Safari was even more popular among iPhone users, the opportunity to capture some of this user base was enormous. It only took a few more months for Google to dethrone Microsoft for good.
Towards the end of summer 2012, it was announced that Google had taken the lead in the browser market, with 31% of users on Chrome. Microsoft certainly helped accelerate their demise by not really innovating with the functionality of Internet Explorer at a time when Chrome was pivoting to the future of web applications.
Google wasn’t done yet, but they accomplished what they set out to do at the start: Chrome killed Internet Explorer and changed the way people use the web.