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Google-Sony deal signals new front in browser war

A year after Google debuted Chrome with a bang, the browser may have failed to meet expectations. But recent moves by the search giant signal a new campaign in the war against rivals, analysts said.

“From the outside, the thought last year was that Google would push Chrome a lot more than it has,” said Ray Valdes, an analyst for Gartner, who said he expected Chrome to have a larger slice of the browser market 12 months after its September 2008 launch. “But with this deal, Google is signaling to the market and to competitors, that it's taking a more traditional approach to marketing Chrome.”

Valdes was referring to news that Google has struck a deal with Sony to add Chrome to the consumer electronics maker's Vaio line of PCs and is exploring similar arrangements with other OEMs.

Google confirmed that Chrome will come on new Sony systems. “We're continuing to explore ways to make Chrome accessible to even more people,” said a company spokesman. “We are in the process of testing one such channel with Sony.”

The Financial Times, which first reported the deal, said that Google is talking with other computer makers about similar deals, while the Wall Street Journal said Sony has acknowledged it will be setting Chrome as the default browser on its Vaio-branded machines.

Although similar deals are commonplace for search engines competing for market share, this is the first time that a non-Microsoft browser has bought its way onto new PCs. “Call it the Microsoftian approach to the market,” Valdes said.

“Absolutely, this is a signal by Google,” agreed Sheri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester Research. “It's significant because [such deals are] a really fast-track way to grow market share. It's got Microsoft in the position it is today.”

A year after Google announced Chrome, rival Microsoft remains the dominant browser maker. Web metrics firm Net Applications puts Internet Explorer (IE) at 66.6% share of the browser market. Chrome, meanwhile, holds only a 2.9% share.

Some, including Microsoft's rivals, argue that IE owes its first-place position to its inclusion with Windows, the world's most widely-used operating system. Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, for instance, used that reasoning when it complained to European antitrust regulators; they have filed charges against Microsoft for shielding IE from competition by bundling it with Windows.

Microsoft has been forced into several concessions by the accusations, including a recent proposal that it will offer a browser “ballot screen” to European customers that lets them choose from at least five browsers — including Chrome — when they go online for the first time.

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