Google's Chrome accounts only for about 4 percent of browser usage worldwide, but in 2009, it exerted outsized influence.
Google launched the open-source browser in 2008, prompting many to ask why anyone needed another after Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox, and Apple's Safari. But over the course of 2009, Google answered that question: with Chrome, the company wants not just to speed up the Web but to rebuild its foundations.
Next came integration with Chrome and two technologies for accelerating Web applications, Google's O3D for 3D graphics, and Native Client software for accelerating general-purpose processing.
But the most ambitious change came with July's announcement of the open-source Chrome OS operating system. It uses Linux under the covers, but Chrome OS applications all run in the browser. That design today has serious practical limitations, so it's fitting the first incarnation of Chrome OS, due in 2010, is for "companion" Netbooks rather than full-fledged replacement PCs. Google released the rough Chrome OS source code in November.
Many Chrome ambitions are still far from any practical reality, but the browser had effects. One: Mozilla programmers have improved launch speed in the Firefox 3.6 beta.
Although Chrome stole some hearts among the techies who historically embraced Firefox, Mozilla's browser was hardly pushed aside. Indeed, Firefox usage crept steadily up to about 25 percent worldwide over 2009. That's a large enough population to make Mozilla's effort to "upgrade the Web" more than posturing.
Mozilla is aggressively adding new features to Firefox, and a host arrived with Firefox 3.5 in June, notably the ability to embed video directly into Web pages without requiring a plug-in such as Adobe Systems' Flash. HTML5 video remains hobbled by differences in opinion over the best video format to use, though. Ultimately, browser companies want to make the Web a foundation for applications, not just static sites, and the work includes interfaces for file handling, multitasking, Webcams, geolocation, and WebGL for 3D graphics.
Some of these improvements are spreading to multiple browsers through development of version 5 of the Hypertext Markup Language. Even Microsoft, whose Internet Explorer is derided as a laggard by techies and Web developers, climbed aboard with direct participation in HTML5 standardization work.
Those plans advanced in July when the World Wide Web Consortium threw its full weight behind HTML5 rather than the comparatively unsuccessful alternative, XHTML 2.0.
Attention now is shifting toward IE 9, though, which Microsoft previewed in December. Hardware acceleration dramatically speeds up some elements of its display, and the new version will comply better with Web standards. Microsoft hasn't announced a ship date for the new version, but it's clear the company is feeling more comfortable with its re-engagement in the browser wars.