'What is a browser?' Is this Google's idea of a 'ballot screen?'

Oftentimes in the case of Google, small actions are the seeds for something much greater. In the case of a marketing video released this morning, we spotted something that looks like one of those Google seeds.

Last June, as part of a Google Creative Lab project, a Google employee named Scott Suiter produced a video with two colleagues. In that video, Suiter interviewed about 50 people one afternoon passing through Times Square in New York City, asking them the simple and nondescript question, "What is a browser?" Many of the folks who appeared in the video tended to confuse a browser with a search engine with a Web site with an operating system, making common mistakes that ordinary folks make, but giving another class of more Internet-active ordinary folks new targets for their unending streams of vitriol.

This morning, a Google associate product marketing manager named Jason Toff responded to Suiter's video with a video of his own, and a site to go along with it, named whatbrowser.org. It's an instructional video which uses crayon-like drawings to explain to complete novices just what a Web browser is, in comparison with the other major components of modern computer software.
It's how the video ends that caught our attention: Although a YouTube video typically is not interactive -- and this one is no exception -- the final frame shows crayon-ized renderings of the icons for the four leading brands of Windows-based Web browsers, along with "chain-link" icons in the lower-right corner -- icons that typically signal, for interactive videos, clickable links that take the viewer someplace else.

A frame from a Google video entitled 'What is a browser?' that looks suspiciously like a possible EU-compliant browser screen.

One explanation for these link icons could be that Toff's video could be a prototype for a Flash presentation that takes the viewer into a further explanation of what individual Web browsers do. (Google, after all, did just join Adobe's Flash developers' promotional group.) It would only make sense, however, that such links could lead viewers to downloads of the browsers themselves -- including Google's own Chrome, of course, but the others in the top four just to be fair.

It might therefore follow that Toff's prototype could depict a theoretical alternate Web browser selection mechanism -- a vendor-neutral concept that might satisfy the European Union's interests for Microsoft to offer Windows users and installers a "ballot screen," letting them choose their own Web browser without the appearance of favoring Internet Explorer.

Microsoft's proposed 'Web Browser Ballot' as presented to the European Commission July 24, 2009.

Microsoft's proposed "Web browser ballot," as presented to the European Commission last summer.

Except that it might not be all that neutral: "A Web browser is the most important piece of software on your computer," Toff explains to novices in his closing to the video, "because every Web page runs through it. So a faster Web browser means you'll save time on every Web page you open. Installing a new Web browser is free, and only takes minutes. So take a moment to choose a Web browser that you like best today."

As Betanews tests continually confirm, Google Chrome is the fastest of the stable Web browsers for Windows currently in production. Planting the seed in novices' minds that faster is better could lead them to try to find the answer to "Which one is fastest?" within the presentation, or to look for the answer online. Given people's responses from Suiter's video, they'll probably use Google for that search. After all, Google has the only browser whose manufacturer's brand is listed in the video. (One wonders which link would be more attractive, "Safari" or "Apple Safari.")

The Opera Web browser was excluded from the Toff video. UPDATE: However, the WhatBrowser.org site does provide a link to this selection page that does include Opera. That page then contains links to manufacturers' respective download pages for browsers.

Google declared itself a participant in the European browser debate last February, when its vice president for product management, Sundar Pichai, posted to his company's policy blog his view that Internet Explorer had an unfair advantage over its competitors due to being tied to Windows. "We learned a lot from launching our own Google Chrome browser last year and are hoping that Google's perspective will be useful as the European Commission evaluates remedies to improve the user experience and offer consumers real choices," Pichai wrote at the time. "Of course, creating a remedy that helps solve one problem without creating other unintended consequences isn't easy -- but the more voices there are in the conversation the greater the chances of success."

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