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Project Googlefox

As another Firefox engineer heads to Google, a look at how a Google browser would shake up the Internet.

As far as rumors go, the one about Google’s move into the browser space is heating up. Ever since it was uncovered that the search company registered the URL gbrowser.com last April, Web chatter has been abuzz with the prospect of Google launching a browser to compete with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.

The buzz meter ratcheted up a few ticks last week when Ben Goodger and Darin Fisher, two key players in the development of the Firefox browser, each announced on the MozillaZine blog that they were now employees of Google.

“Another pointer towards a Google browser,” someone posted on Googlefan.com. “Ben Goodger was lead engineer on the Firefox projectnow he’s been hired by Google – the company that owns gbrowser.”

Neither Goodger nor Fisher is commenting on their new roles, and Steve Langdon, a spokesperson for the company, has also maintained a relative silence on the specifics.

“I’m not able to share any information on what Ben’s going to work on,” Langdon says. “Many of Google’s products aim to enhance browser products, and we’re interested in exploring interaction between browsers and Google’s services.”

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Google is in fact building a browser. The company is constantly unveiling new products, from desktop search tools to television video searches. A browser wouldn’t be a tremendous departure for the company’s famous tinkerers.

But a Google browser would be a major shot across the bow of Microsoft.

Right now, Microsoft doesn’t make money on its Internet Explorer, although the product is lumped in with the company’s lucrative Operating Systems division. The IE browser, though, plays an important defensive position for the company, a position that’s expected to become more offensive when Microsoft’s next operating system, Longhorn, is released in 2006.

Analysts believe the browser will feature an integrated search component, similar to a toolbar, which will return users to a Microsoft-produced search results page, with keyword and other advertisements around the search results.

The troublesome area for Microsoft, however, is that it might not maintain its browser dominance until 2006. With the release of Firefox, Microsoft is seeing that latent user frustration molts into defection, given a suitable alternative choice.

According to OneStat.com, IE has lost five percent of its market share directly to Firefox, a product publicized almost exclusively through word of mouth alone. Think about the user reaction – spurred by perceived virus vulnerabilities and quality concerns – if Google were to launch a browser and advertise it heavily.

“A Google browser could dramatically change the browser market share,” says Mark Mahaney, an analyst with American Technology Research.

Microsoft is downplaying the speculation, and putting a smiling face on the prospect of a new browser war.

“While Internet Explorer is the choice of hundreds of millions because of the unique value it provides, we respect that some customers will choose an alternative,” a Microsoft spokesperson says in an email interview.

For now, Microsoft isn’t yet in trouble. It still controls over 90 percent of the browser market, and with the Longhorn on the way in less that two years, Google needs to act quickly if it is in fact planning on launching a browser product. A new Internet Explorer with built-in search capabilities could have a devastating effect on Google.

“If there’s one thing that has the potential to dramatically switch search share now is an integrated search function in a browser,” says Mahaney.

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