Chrome is definitely a popular browser for Windows (it is debatable how popular it actally is, because the web usage tracking reports tend to not agree with each other). However, it is not very clear why it is popular.
I have tried to explain part of the reason by showing a positive correlation between Windows XP usage and Chrome adoption. This correlation suggests that users with older and less powerful machines will tend to use Chrome, either because they use Windows XP which does not run IE9 and above, or because Chrome runs better on these machines. On newer and more powerful machines, you can use the latest versions of IE (on Windows 7 or 8), and the performance will be good enough for general use.
This correlation however was not enough in magnitude to explain the popularity of Chrome.
Here I would like to note some tactics that Google is using, which have probably been very effective (Windows users at least will be quite familiar with them).
Google Home Page
The top page for Google Search displays a banner that invites you to install Google Chrome. Since Google Search has dominant market share, this is obviously a very powerful way to promote Chrome. The problem is, most modern browsers have a search field somewhere in the UI controls which takes you directly to the search results. Hence most people will only rarely visit Google’s top page.
Adobe PDF Reader Download Page
If my memory serves my right, Microsoft was banned from bundling a PDF-viewer into Windows due to antitrust issues. As a result, users are generally required to separately install the Adobe PDF Reader to view PDF documents on the web.
When you go the Adobe’s web site to install the Adobe PDF Reader, this it the page you get.
Adobe does not simply show you a banner to install Google Chrome. It bundles Google Chrome (and the Google Toolbar) so that they are automatically installed together with the PDF Reader, unless you explicitly opt-out. This is tens or maybe hundreds of times more effective than a banner.
And in case if you’re wondering whether Adobe makes Chrome your default browser or not, well why not? It is the default browser unless you access a hidden screen and opt-out.
So to summarize, when normal users install Adobe PDF Reader onto their PCs, their default browser will now be Google Chrome, without their knowing it.
This is generally known as bundling, but in this case, it’s closer to a trojan horse.
Google has used this tactic with other browser plug-ins before, in particular to get users to install Google Toolbar. It is nothing new.
How much does this cost Google?
I have no information on how much Google might be paying Adobe to bundle Chrome with their PDF Viewer. We do know however how much Google is paying Mozilla to use Google as the default search engine. Google paid $300 million per year. The vast majority of Mozilla’s revenue is actually from this deal.
I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Google was paying Adobe in the tens of millions or even in the hundreds. It is not impossible that payments to Adobe exceed those to Mozilla. Keep in mind that Adobe’s PDF viewer has much higher market share than Firefox ever did.
Google is the only browser manufacturer that is using these kinds of promotions. If fact, it is likely that Google is the only third-party browser vendor which has deep enough pockets to do this kind of thing. Mozilla is a non-profit organization, which relies on Google for most of its revenue. Opera is developed by a company that generated total revenue of 300 million USD in 2014. While this is a respectable amount of revenue, it is similar to the money that Google gives Mozilla. There is no way either Mozilla or Opera could fund promotion campaigns that would require bidding against Google. As expected, Google has a monopoly on these promotions. I have never seen similar ones from either Mozilla or Opera.
How effective are these promotions?
Without any data to go by, we can only speculate on the effectiveness of these promotions. However evidence suggests that at least the Adobe bundling promotion would be quite effective.
We know that Adobe PDF viewer is the defacto standard for viewing PDFs on Windows, and few people would not install it. We can also safely assume that most people would just use the default settings (install Chrome and make it your default browser) when downloading PDF viewer.
This is huge by any measure.
What can Microsoft do about this?
To prevent plug-in vendors from being a launchpad for bundled Chrome installs, Microsoft could rely on integrating plugins into IE itself. There may be problems related to antitrust however. It is interesting to note that Windows 8 does have a Metro-style Reader app that can display PDF files. There might be parts of the antitrust ruling which Microsoft could work around. However in general, I guess that it would be difficult for Microsoft to do enough integration to stop the leaks.
They could also make it more difficult for Chrome to be set up as the default browser behind your back. Adobe’s web site hides this setting so users won’t know that they are actually letting this happen. This however might also have antitrust issues.
I tend to think that it will be very difficult for Microsoft to stop this. Improving the performance of IE alone will not help. They have to include their own PDF plugin.
What does this mean?
As Chrome’s popularity has risen, many people have assumed that it was due to Chrome’s performance advantages. Although this may have been a factor, knowing that most users do not actively change default settings, I was doubtful if this could have been the most significant reason.
In my previous post, I had postulated that maybe Windows XP (which only runs up to IE8) was the reason. However the statistics, although inconclusive, suggested that it was not the major factor.
In this post, I looked at the promotions that Google was doing. Although the amount that Google is actually spending has not been disclosed, it is likely that they are spending very large amounts of money which none of their competitors could afford. Given the breadth and stealthiness of these promotions, I think it is safe to assume that these have contributed significantly. These promotions might even have been more important than any real performance improvements.
If this is the case, then no amount of performance improvements on the IE side will help IE’s market share. Chrome will continue to gain regardless.
The one bright side is that Microsoft might be able to include a simple PDF viewer plugin. A further understanding of the antitrust issues is required to see if this will be possible or not.
After a bit of research on the web, it seems that Adobe was threatening Microsoft with an antitrust lawsuit over the inclusion of PDF-export features in MS-Office. I could not find any articles that suggested that this expanded to a Microsoft-developed PDF-viewer plugin in IE (it could be a confidential agreement between the two parties), but it is not unreasonable to guess that it was.