SAN FRANCISCO — When Google took a video camera to Times Square in 2009 and asked passers-by what a browser was, most of the answers were hilariously incorrect, from ‘‘a search engine’’ to ‘‘broadband’’ to ‘‘Yahoo.’’
But even if consumers are not so sure what Web browsers are (programs such as Internet Explorer and Firefox), they have become a crucial business for tech companies like Google and Microsoft. They are now the entry point not just to the Web but to everything stored online, such as Web apps, documents, and photos.
And as the cloud grows more integral, browser companies are engaged in a new battle to win our allegiance that will affect how we use the Internet. It is an echo of the so-called browser wars of the 1990s, when Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator fought for dominance on personal computers. This time, the struggle is shaping up to be over which company will control the mobile world — with browsers on smartphones and tablets. Entrenched businesses are at stake. Google’s browser-based business apps, for instance, threaten Microsoft’s desktop software, and mobile Web apps threaten Apple’s App Store.
‘‘Twenty years ago, we didn’t know how the Internet was going to get used by people, and we for sure didn’t know about mobile or tablets,’’ said Marc Andreessen, cofounder of the first major browser, Netscape Navigator, and an investor in Rockmelt, a browser start-up. ‘‘Mobile is a whole new level of reinvention.’’
Still, browsing the Web on a mobile device is still inferior to using the desktop Web or smartphone apps. Apps have more exciting features, are faster to load, and are better optimized to small screens.
But technologists say mobile browsers will improve when HTML5, the new set of tools for designing websites, becomes pervasive. Its technologies enable websites to be as functional and visually rich as apps.