With Chromecast, Google reveals Chrome as its strategic big gun

The browser is behind Google's play for user data from as many screens as possible

Chrome is Google and Google is Chrome.

The Chrome browser is Google's most potent strategic weapon, a former Microsoft program manager said last week.

"Chrome is the focus at Google; Android is an afterthought," asserted Ben Thompson, who writes on his Stratechery blog. Thompson, who left Microsoft earlier this month, has quickly made a name for himself with insights into the technology market, in particular Microsoft, Apple and Google, ranging from Microsoft's massive reorganization to the possible role for a larger, 13-in. iPad.

"Chrome shouldn't be thought of as a Web browser," Thompson wrote. "Rather, it's an optimized bi-directional delivery vehicle: the best experience with Google services for users, and maximum user data for Google. And it runs everywhere. This is why Google has been investing millions of dollars in building the Chrome brand."

Thompson's latest post was reacting to the debut of Chromecast, the $35 stream-to-TV device Google introduced last week. Chromecast, said Google, is powered by a simplified version of Chrome OS. (Although GTVHacker.com claimed Chromecast is "more Android than ChromeOS.")

"As a horizontal company, Google wants to be on every screen, and their vehicle to accomplish that across verticals, both from a technical and brand perspective, is Chrome," Thompson added. By "verticals," Thompson meant "devices."

It's hard to argue with Thompson.

Google has been expending significant resources to push Chrome into as many corners as possible.

Not only is Chrome (the browser) available for all major desktop and mobile platforms -- from Windows and OS X to Android and iOS -- the major features of Chrome OS are being added to the browser, including packaged, nee "native," Web apps and the ability to view and edit Microsoft Office documents.

The goal? From Thompson's viewpoint, control of a "multi-screen world."

Others have had similar thoughts.

"It looks like Google is defining the Chrome platform as what I'd call 'Web Platform Plus,' and intends for Chrome OS and the Chrome browser to be a 'platform on a platform' on any device it is permitted to run on," said IDC analyst Al Hilwa in a May interview, months before Chromecast.

By defining that "platform on a platform" -- Chrome on Windows, on Android, on iOS, on OS X, on the television -- Google is trying to turn as many devices and screens as possible into ones locked into the company's ecosystem, keep users loyal to that same ecosystem of sites, service and apps, and entice others to join them.

The ultimate prize is more revenue, which Google generates almost exclusively from online advertising. All Google does, argued Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester, is driven by its search for more, and more expensive, advertising.

"Google is advertising driven. All its efforts, including Chromecast, are not just about selling more ads, they're about aggregating data about the customer to make those ads more valuable," said Golvin in an interview last week. "The more you can target the ads, the more attractive they are to advertisers, and the more Google's real customers -- advertisers -- are willing to pay."

Thompson dubbed that "maximum user data," but his meaning was the same as Golvin's.

Chromecast is Google's newest blatant example of a Chrome-centric strategy. Not only does it carry the "Chrome" moniker, important in itself as an expression of brand identity, but it heavily leans on the browser for functionality.

Only a handful of dedicated apps support Chromecast out the gate: Google's own YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV and Google Play Music; and the only third-party entry, Netflix. The rest of the lifting is done by Chrome, the browser.

Content on any Chrome tab active on a device within range of a Chromecast-equipped TV can be displayed on the television. During installation on a Windows or OS X personal computer, Chromecast automatically adds the Google Cast add-on to the browser; it can be downloaded separately from the Chrome Web Store, but again, requires Chromecast.

Not only does Chrome's ability to cast ease the early adopter pain of too-few Chromecast-supporting apps, but it circumvents the limitations of accumulating data when third-party apps are used to display content on a television.

Instead, the normal data collection rules -- as Google spells them out in its privacy policy for Chrome -- apply.

Specifically, Google knows what you watch, at least in a general way.

"For Chromecast users, Google may collect system activity, crashes, and other details about how you use Chromecast, including use of apps and domains (but not full URLs) accessed by Chromecast," Google's privacy policy states.

Maximum user data, as Thompson put it.

In fact, argued Thompson, Google has bet its strategic coin on Chrome, not Android, the mobile operating system also launched in 2008, the same year as Chrome. Thompson noted that Android was largely absent from last week's unveiling of Chromecast -- even to the point, if GTVHacker.com was correct, fudging the code foundation of the device's firmware -- as it was earlier this year at Google's I/O developer conference.

That's no coincidence, Thompson said.

"Android ... enables several of those verticals [devices], and keeps Apple honest in phones especially," said Thompson. "However, by virtue of the hardware world it lives in, it's not the best vehicle for reaching all users, and Google is fine with that. Now that Android is good enough on phones, there simply isn't any point in investing in it as heavily as before."

Put plainly, Chrome is Google ... and Google is Chrome.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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