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Originally published Monday, September 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Brier Dudley

Browsers as potent mix of ads, software

Imagine what it would be like at the library if, instead of using the Dewey Decimal System to find things, everyone had to use a system...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Imagine what it would be like at the library if, instead of using the Dewey Decimal System to find things, everyone had to use a system run by digital ad companies.

Eventually, people would get used to having companies know who reads what, when and where. You'd either trust the companies or find other ways to search for information.

What if that relationship was tested, though, by the companies installing turnstiles as well?

I wonder if this is the direction we're heading with the next generation of Web browsers, test versions of which were released over the past two weeks: Google's Chrome and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8.

Both are great pieces of software, with lots of nice features.

They have options for increasing privacy. Explorer, in particular, changes the equation by masking your presence while surfing.

Addressing privacy concerns is a high priority for Microsoft and Google. Their new browsers are critical. They're tomorrow's computing desktops from which you'll run programs and use files stored online.

What's troublesome is that these essential programs are coming from companies that have made advertising sales a top priority, too.

The pressure to add more user-tracking and -targeting capabilities will only increase as they race to outdo each other and develop the most effective tools for advertisers.

Not that these browsers will necessarily lead to intrusive snooping. What I'm wondering is what the future will be like if the dominant software developers are also advertising service providers. (Not to mention our reliance on those companies' indexes of the Web — will there ever be an ad-free way to search this public repository?)

Google's leap into the general software business with applications, a phone-operating system and now a browser seems like a good time to start asking these questions. We're also at a turning point, with the frenzy of Google-ad-powered Web ventures cooling off and entrepreneurs mulling new business models.

So far Google has been responsive to concerns on how and when Chrome sends data to Google.com.

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It does so when you start typing in the browser's search box and the browser suggests terms that you may be looking for. Google search guru Matt Cutts said this is a convenience that some like. He also noted that Firefox and the new Explorer have the same feature, and it can be turned off.

But the default setting is on. Most customers probably won't change the settings, so the out-of-box configuration is important.

I'm not saying that everything from Google and Microsoft is laden with ads and tracking software. Google offers ad-free versions of its productivity software to companies that pay subscription fees. Most of Microsoft's software is ad-free, though it's experimenting with the mix and offering less expensive online versions supported by ads.

"I don't see the ad model really eclipsing the traditional licensing sales or subscription-service sales anytime soon," said Dwight Davis, vice president of Ovum research in Kirkland. "But I think it's going to be a growing piece of the pie."

Maybe I'm jumping the gun.

I'll bring the subject up again in a couple of years, after Google and Microsoft are storing our medical records and we're using Chrome 3.0 and Internet Explorer 10.

Unless we're all used to it by then.

Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him bdudley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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