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Exactly What's Under the Chrome, Anyway?

By Bob Rice, for Portfolio.com Email 09.05.08

Bob Rice is the author of Three Moves Ahead: What Chess Can Teach You About Business, and the former C.E.O. of a tech startup. He now runs merchant bank Tangent Capital, which he founded in 2005.

Love 'em to death, but here's the thing to remember about Google: Your business is its business.

Google doesn't sell software or hardware or content. It sells you -- or, slightly more precisely, its ability to understand your habits and deliver your attention to particular advertisers. And because of this, I am just a touch nervous about installing Chrome, its new browser software.

Of course, Google already collects mountains of information about you from your searches (you do realize they keep track of those, right?), and from the huge cookie collection delivered fresh daily by their ad bakery (the cookie gathers information from all Google products and affiliates -- and doesn't expire until 2038). Gmail users may also have long ago realized they were conceding privacy for convenience and bells and whistles.

Indeed, Google has far more and better data about your habits than the relatively modest amounts that set of privacy firestorms for AOL and DoubleClick (which Google now owns) back in the day. But so far, with Google, it's been like successfully boiling a frog: the temperature has gone up very slowly, so nobody's jumped out of the pot just yet.

Perhaps that's because Google offers so many wonderful services. Who wants to head out without checking the traffic with Google Maps (oops, more footprints)? Or plan an event without checking everybody's calendar (oy...)?

At first glance, Chrome seems just another browser -- and between us, who cares? IE, Safari, Firefox, Chrome -- one has more cup-holders, another has leather trim. So is the idea really just to take a piece of the "browser business," as many say? I doubt it, largely because there isn't one: Nobody's paid for browser software since about 1998. Firefox, remember, is the product of a nonprofit -- one that, interestingly, has been heavily funded by Google, for reasons previously unknown.

At first, Google's goal will be to change the software game and speed your transition from a desktop-driven environment to its "cloud computing" applications: word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software. Google hopes that soon, you'll create these documents on one computer, leave them on their servers in the sky, and then continue working on them later from any other computer. Natch, you'll collaborate, share and deliver the docs this way, too. And Chrome will be the interface for it all, on top of serving more mundane web surfing functions.

And all the while, Google will be doing the usual, capturing your data, your documents, your habits.

And, how will they use all this information? To do what they do: deliver ever more precisely targeted ads, with concomitant higher response rates, and thus generate more dollars. Maybe we'll see "This cell sponsored by Fidelity" in our spreadsheets soon.

Sure, other companies are in position to track your data, too. The difference is that, for the most part, their business models don't require them to exploit that knowledge. And certainly nobody has the reach that Google has and will have -- especially after they eliminate your last ability to hide with the G-phone this fall.

Now we know Big Brother's real name, do we care? Free software and services are great, and I'd rather see relevant ads than irrelevant ones. But make no mistake: this lunch, too, has a real cost. It's called privacy.

So that's the question consumers have to answer: Is it worth it? If they genuinely don't care about one company controlling a complete catalog of their surfing and working, talking and texting, and meetings and greetings, fine. For me, I think I'd rather pay cash and avoid a virtual peeping Tom who only makes money if he predicts my private behavior well. But, then, I admit it: I'm so 2005.

So, shine up your computer with Chrome if you like; but at least consider getting that "Do No Evil" promise in writing first.