google_chrome_preview There are new Internet browsers available in the news – Microsoft made a beta release of Internet Explorer 8 available last week for testing, and Google caused a fuss when it released a beta version of Chrome today, possibly as a hasty response to Microsoft’s release.

Google envisions a future where all of our work is done in an Internet browser. You’ll work on online files using online applications, powered by rich web-based programming languages. The underlying operating system fades in importance in that world – it might be Windows but it doesn’t have to be because it’s not doing anything interesting. Imagine this pitch:

Now available at WalMart, the ChromePC 3000, powered by Google! It starts instantly, like any other appliance; it runs your online programs faster than any PC or Mac; it’s almost invulnerable to viruses and malware. You can watch movies from Netflix, watch Internet TV, play streaming music, and watch YouTube videos; you can work on your documents stored in Google Docs or Acrobat.com, check your GMail or Hotmail or Yahoo Mail, and you can edit your photos in Picasa or Adobe Photoshop Online. It’s yours for $299!

That’s pretty tempting! It might not matter that it’s manufactured by an unknown Korean company and runs Ubuntu Linux, eh?

Now I just made that up with no regard for reality. But Microsoft is going nuts because it’s increasingly easy to imagine some variation on that  – an emerging market that bypasses Windows. There are a lot of people who might be perfectly content to use a simple device that only runs an Internet browser although it’s not going to be everyone’s world; even if we use more online services and move files online, businesses will still use rich applications installed on Windows for a long time to come.

Google’s vision is interesting. At the moment, the reality is something else. Google may have rushed its announcement of Chrome because it was embarrassed that after years of development its “new” features are not special at all – they’re very, very similar to the features in Internet Explorer 8. The new features in either one are modest improvements at best – architectural changes to make the browers more crash-resistant, faster Java, better security, and a way to surf online without collecting any history (immediately and obviously dubbed “Porn Mode”). Neato! Not exactly riveting stuff.

Early reports suggest that Chrome is a work in progress, with some bugs, no support for add-ins, and an interface that is so stripped-down that I personally find it a bit odd. IE8 has some nice new ways to customize things and a few things moved around. I’m not sure I have time to test either one.

Let me return to something I said about Firefox when its new version was released. (This is addressed to the business users trying to get work done and the home users who don’t want technical glitches. If you’re a technically proficient computer user, go about your business with my best wishes.)

All of you have Internet Explorer 7 installed on your Windows computers. It is stable, full-featured, and secure.

Don’t install duplicative software unnecessarily! You should not install a new Internet browser because a well-meaning friend tells you that it’s cool, or a newspaper article speaks highly of it. You should install software if and only if you can articulate something that the new software will allow you to do that you cannot currently do. And you must be ready to take on the burden of giving the new software the care and attention it will require for security and stability.