In just over 13 years, Google’s Chrome browser has risen from a new project to the behemoth we know today. Today, Chrome is by far the most popular browser in the world on both desktop and mobile. You could even say Chrome killed Internet Explorer. So, how did Google accomplish this unbelievable feat in such a short time?
Mostly they did it starting from scratch. Microsoft, along with Mozilla and others, were continuing to build their browsers on legacy code. Google used a few existing tools to create Chrome, but for the most part, their approach to a browser was completely new.
When Google came on the scene, Microsoft hadn’t really thought much about reinventing the browser experience. In fact, Internet Explorer worked the same in 2008 as it did in 1998. Google had plans to change all of that. In the beginning, Chrome set out to be an entire platform for exploring the web in a new way, not just a browser. These aspirations pushed Google to innovate in several key ways, eventually breaking through with the largest browser market share in 2012.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how Google skyrocketed Chrome to the top from 2008 to 2012. There were three key contributing factors — the open-source nature of Chromium, revolutionizing web browsing with extensions, and the rise of Android and Chromebooks. This article kicks off our series on the history of web browsers, celebrating Google’s 23rd birthday on September 27, 2021.
2008: Launching in beta
Google launched the Chrome browser in beta on September 2nd, 2008. This was a very interesting time in tech. Smartphones were fairly new and apps weren’t really a big deal in 2008. Already looking to the future, Google developed Chrome on top of the HTML layout engine, WebKit, which would support web apps like their popular Maps service. At the time the beta launched, Google made a comic to explain why they created a new browser in a sea of existing alternatives.
The comic itself is quite lengthy at 39 pages, but the first page gives a pretty good synopsis of Google’s philosophy. In their minds, the browser experience was completely broken. People didn’t use the internet for just accessing research articles for school anymore, the web was a big place with content to consume. Perhaps the biggest unique advantage for Chrome early on was the sandboxing of separate browser tabs. Browser crashing was a fairly common thing, especially on Internet Explorer. Sandboxing meant that if one tab crashed, the entire session didn’t go down with it.
Indeed, sandboxing separate tabs was a move that looked forward to the future of the web, where apps would replace webpages as the primary tool for users. With this in mind, Google took the next huge step in seizing the browser space — in September 2008, the open-source Chromium Project launched. Not only was open-source in vogue at the time, it also garnered developer interest in Chrome as a project. Google knew they’d need developers on board to speed up improvements to Chrome, as well as create for their upcoming extensions gallery.
2009: Chrome OS and extensions
By 2009, it was clear that Chrome was a big deal. That summer, Google announced they were building an entire operating system based on Chrome, aptly named ‘Chrome OS’. At the same time, users were converting to Chrome more and more. In July 2009, there were over 30 million people using Google’s new browser. A user base of 30 million in less than a year is pretty incredible, certainly something not seen before in the browser wars.
While Chrome OS and the growing user base were huge news, 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. Users and developers alike loved extensions. In just over a year’s time, the extensions gallery had over 10,000 extensions and themes. Customization is a deeply personal thing and people embraced the idea of personalizing their browser’s appearance and functionality.
At the end of 2009, Chrome already had 5% market share. While that number seems small, keep in mind this was a brand new product, fighting for competition 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 the Chrome Web Store
With Chrome growing at an exponential rate, it was time for Google to start cashing in on the success. In August 2010, Google began charging developers $5 to publish their Chrome apps in the extension gallery. This was both a revenue 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 largest user increase ever. Tripling from 40 million to 120 million over the course of 2010, Google was legitimately threatening Microsoft’s top spot for browser market share. Perhaps the most interesting thing is Microsoft didn’t do very much to stave off Chrome’s ascent to the top. Instead of adding new platform-independent features, Microsoft focused on deeper integration with Windows in Internet Explorer 9.
Unfortunately, most of those features IE9 added for Windows already existed in Chrome. There’s no doubt that if Microsoft launched a truly redesigned version of IE in 2010, they would have at least delayed Chrome’s rise to #1.
At the conclusion of 2010, Google launched the Chrome Web Store. Unlike the smaller extensions gallery, this was a more polished app store for Chrome users. New developers jumped on board and Chrome was quickly becoming not only the fastest browser, but the most versatile one as well. The extensions, plugins, and themes in the Chrome Web Store shaped how people used the web and even how web content was monetized. With ad block extensions readily available, the traditional method of monetizing web content with ads was no longer viable. This introduced all-new opportunities for Google to innovate in their other key business — advertising.
Chrome’s growth was on cruise control and doing things differently than every other browser, but Google still wasn’t satisfied. It was time for Chrome to get a few new tricks, dedicated hardware, and a new coat of paint.
2011: A new logo, Chromebooks, and the tabs page
From the very beginning, Chrome had a 3D logo. By March 2011, that design looked pretty outdated. Apple started the trend of bringing flat icons to iOS and Google didn’t want their design to seem out of place. The design change was fairly minimal, but quite impactful. Keeping the same color scheme, Google flattened out the Chrome logo to give it a more modern look.
In May 2011, Google launched Chromebooks. While netbooks were fairly popular in 2011, the idea of a laptop with no hard drive was fairly foreign. Chromebooks would handle all tasks via the Chrome browser. At first, the proliferation of Chromebooks was stagnated by the launch of Apple’s iPad. Thankfully, with some persistence from OEMs and tweaks from Google, Chromebooks became a hit, especially in the education sector.
With Chrome OS now running on dedicated hardware, Google had another outlet to increase the user base for Chrome as a browser. Over the next decade, Chromebooks would become ubiquitous throughout the budget computing segment, now running both Android and Linux apps.
To cap off 2011, Chrome debuted another feature that would soon be standard across all browsers — the New Tab Page. The idea was genius, albeit incredibly simple. Collecting all of your favorite Chrome apps or pages that you visit frequently just made sense. As people learned to customize the New Tab Page, it made browsing the web easier and accomplishing work more intuitive.
By the end of 2011, Chrome had nearly 25% market share, nearly a tie for second place with Firefox. To make the final leap, Google needed to bring Chrome to mobile devices.
2012: Chrome comes to Android and iOS
In retrospect, it’s incredibly surprising how long it took for Chrome to launch on Android. Android became official as an operating system in September 2008, the same time the Chrome beta debuted. Considering these are both 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 mess that up.
In February 2012, Chrome finally launched on Android. With millions of Android devices out there, this was a huge catalyst for capturing lots of market share in a single move. Just four months later, Google launched Chrome for iOS. While Safari was still more popular amongst iPhone users, the opportunity to capture part of that user base was huge. It only took a few more months from this point for Google to dethrone Microsoft for good.
Near the end of summer 2012, it was announced Google had taken the market share lead for browsers, with 31% of users on Chrome. Microsoft certainly helped speed up their demise by not truly innovating with Internet Explorer features in a time that Chrome pivoted to the future of web applications.
Google wasn’t done yet, but they accomplished what they set out to in the beginning — Chrome killed Internet Explorer and changed the way people use the web.