Maggie Shiels

What is a web browser?

  • Maggie Shiels
  • 7 Oct 09, 12:39 GMT

Do you know what a web browser is? Do you know the difference between a browser and a search engine?

These aren't trick questions, but it turns out that on a random day back in June in New York's Times Square, less than 8% of people polled had any idea what a browser was.

The company doing the questioning was of course really interested in what kind of answers it would get, and was no doubt disturbed at the same time.

That company was Google, which is of course spending a small fortune and a fair amount of time developing its own web browser called Chrome.

Since then, Google has tried to fill the information gap with an explanatory video.

Call it part of a back-to-basics approach, but the video certainly ensures that the viewer isn't overwhelmed with technical information. The same approach has been used in a specially site to educate users.

Google associate product marketing manager Jason Toff explained in a blog post that his reason for creating the site was that his own "unscientific study" among friends showed that they were just as confused about web browsers as the folks of New York.

"Lots of our time each day is spent online, and every page on the web is experienced through the browser. Unfortunately, most people don't realise that there are many browsers out there, which differ on features like speed, security and extensibility."

It is worth noting that Google does not steer users to any particular browser and offers up Opera, Google Chrome, Apple's Safari, Mozilla's Firefox and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

Heaven help Google if they hit the streets to solicit answers to the question "What is Google Wave?"


  • Comment number 1.

    Haha. You can tell Google have fallen out with Microsoft and Apple. Both companies browsers are last on its list of available browsers ( Not a bad little site though, question is when will they really start pushing Chrome via its main pages, instead of the little 'try Google Chrome' messages currently

  • Comment number 2.

    Wow, if all you need to do to be a BBC technology journalist is reword posts from the Official Google Blog, I could do it in my lunch break.

    Seriously, what exactly is the point of this blog post? Where's the scope for discussion? Where is the insight? This might as well have read "Google have posted something on their blog. Go and read it."

  • Comment number 3.

    I know enough people who work in electronics shop or on tech helplines to be completely unsurprised by this. People frequently ask to buy Google or "The Internet", and are flummoxed by the fact it's a monthly payment ("I don't want to rent it, I want to buy it"). The number of people who think "wireless" and "a normal keyboard/modem/mouse with the cable cut off with a pair of kitchen scissors" are interchangeable is impressive.

  • Comment number 4.

    It's got to be asked how the interviews were conducted in June but the video was uploaded in April?

  • Comment number 5.

    Most people probably dont know what a browser is, they dont need to know. Their computer comes with one or anothr and they just click on it to get to the internet.

    If Google had bothered to ask the same people who said no if thy know what "internet explorer" was they would likely get a much larger response of yes because that is what it is labelled.

  • Comment number 6.

    I noticed when I browse Google's home page in Internet Explorer I am shown a link offering me the opportunity to download Chrome, but I don't get this when I use Firefox. Is this just me I wonder?

  • Comment number 7.

    I don't find it surprising that so few people know what a web browser or search engine is, or at least can distinguish between the two.

    I maintain the point of view that there are too many "noobs" out there who would do well to learn something about what they are using before they set out to use it, we have a driving licence, why not a computer licence?

    Oh btw just for those who don't know here is Wikipedias definition of a web browser - A web browser is a software application for retrieving, presenting, and traversing information resources on the World Wide Web.

    Pretty self explanatory if you ask me, but then I was asked what is a web browser, not what is google chrome, which would probably have been the more relevant question to this unscientific study...

  • Comment number 8.

    I'd expect something a lot more... technical from a technology blog. Come on, where's the real technology news? Google trying to educate users isn't something special. There's no deep significance that needs to be unearthed to understand Google's motives. People are ignorant one way or another and it's more of a social issue than a technology issue. This blog post reads as if it should be titled "what I read on Google today".

  • Comment number 9.

    I was thinking about the comparison between the browsers the other day. I have IE8 on my machine (only because I use Chinese internet and that doesn't function properly in any other browser) and so I have to use it every day. If you put Chrome up against IE the difference is almost laughable, it makes you wonder why anyone even uses that hunk of tripe. Yet Chrome is still only pulling a tiny percent of users, and many of those transferred from firefox.

    I guess as Chrome develops it will start to pull more and more firefox users which will be a shame as firefox in itself is still much much better than ie.

    The key is education and the fact is that although more people are using the internet still not many of them actually know what it is, as long as they can get facebook and the news they are happy. While ms is shipping ie with windows it is still going to be the dominant browser no matter how horrible it is to use.

  • Comment number 10.

    "What's a browser?" It's actually a very good question as I spend a lot of time on the internet and I still don't know the answer. I know that something called "FireFox" is a cure for cancer and something called "IE" is what killed Jesus and that most people seem to use "Uneducated Propaganda" to surf the net.

  • Comment number 11.

    It does seem worrying, when people don't know what a browser is. Similarly, however, it also seems a lot of people don't know what an Operating System is, either, which would be similar to driving a car and not knowing what an engine is.
    Or, in the case of a Browser, not knowing what the windscreen is.

  • Comment number 12.

    IE8 for Windows and Safari for MAC.

    That is all you need, IMO.

  • Comment number 13.

    It does seem worrying, when people don't know what a browser is. Similarly, however, it also seems a lot of people don't know what an Operating System is, either, which would be similar to driving a car and not knowing what an engine is.
    Or, in the case of a Browser, not knowing what the windscreen is.


    dont be stupid. Anyone who uses the interent knows what a browser actually is, its just they do not know what it is called. Ask them about internet explorer, safari or firefox and 90% of net users will recognise one or the other, the generic tem browser just does not register. Similarly more people know what Google (as a verb) means than the phrase search engine.

    As for your exmple, why would anyoe need to know what an engine or windshield are called in order to be able to drive a car?

    The whole browser war thing i stupid nonsense anyway, no-one earns any money from any of them so why do they bother other than to inflate their own egos?

  • Comment number 14.

    @13 Knowledge about a system almost every person uses in some way (even if indirectly) every day is not a bad thing. The internet and it's associated technologies have quite literally changed the world just as much as, say, the invention of the internal combustion engine.

    The need for learning about this sort of stuff is partly due to respect for the incredible amounts of hard work put into making our lives as nice as possible, and partly due to necessity. Much like how we learn history or science at school - it is because having general knowledge about our world is very important. People should not look at the internet as a kind of magic, but instead look at it and see the incredible machinery behind it, even if it is only a tiny dip into a horribly deep pool of complexity - at the very least it is interesting, but hopefully to some it will be inspirational.

    The internet and computational systems in general are the tools that will undoubtedly shape our future in a massive way, to be almost completely ignorant of their operation is not a good thing.

    As for browser wars, yes they are non-profit (Firefox, one of the most popular, even being run by a community where anyone can contribute, not a company) but this makes it no more important. It's called competition, if we didn't have browser wars (or format wars or standard wars or...) we would be stuck with a terrible internet, slow and clunky, a decadent browser and standards system and probably a very expensive dial-up bill.

  • Comment number 15.


    I have to disagree, most people don't know what internet explorer is, the simply just click on start and then internet, they don't necessarily know what the name of the software actually is. I have had so many blank faces when I ask people if they use internet explorer.

    Also there is huge amounts of money to be made in the browser wars. People use defaults and so the default search engine makes a fortune for microsoft and google. Google pays mozilla millions for search referals from firefox.

  • Comment number 16.

    Why would anybody other people who are interested or work in the trade need to have any knowlege of how the internet functions??

    I drive my car to work and back every day, i know it's got an engine, but i haven't got the faintest clue how it works and neither do i want to know. If someone tried to explain mechanics to me I'd drift off and wouldn't listen anyway.

    As long as people understand the 'Highway Code' of computing on the internet, leave them to happily click 'Internet' and 'Facebook'. Ingnorance is bliss....

  • Comment number 17.

    IE is dreadful, but they are slowly catching up to the standards when rendering code. It would make life so much easier if all these browsers were compliant to the same rules.

    I use Firefox but Opera and Safari are great too. Haven't really warmed up to Chrome yet.

  • Comment number 18.

    Even some of those who 'should know' don't know. I visited one of the mobile operator stores in Guildford, UK, last week and asked what was the browser on a particular phone. 'Google' came the answer.

  • Comment number 19.

    "why would anyoe need to know what an engine or windshield are called in order to be able to drive a car"

    a friend of mine discovered last week why you need to know what the engine is called and how to look after it - her engine seized at speed on a dual carriageway as she hadn't put any oil in it for months. Fortunately there wasn't a 44 tonner on her tail and there was a place to coast off the carriageway.

  • Comment number 20.

    I was getting asked to explain Web2.0 to someone and that's a lot harder to pin down than "what is a browser". So if you want to know what Web2.0 is hopefully you will be able to point people at and we might get a bit of consensus.

  • Comment number 21.

    Continuing with the car analogy and highlighting some of the differences between driving a car and using the Web, for me the main difference between the two is that someone wouldn't even contemplate driving without proper training, but most of the Web users have never been taught how to use computers. We just assume that most of the computer users today are capable of using their computers. IMO, the reality is very different, most users do not know how to use a browser or an office suite.

    A very simple example is the address bar in the browser, most people i know don't type addresses anymore but instead they write the address into the search bar(?). My gf and my parents do it as well, and those are people with university degrees. In a way I can understand why firefox coolbar and chrome address/search bar are basically the address and search bar morphed into one, it's all about usability.

    Anyway, my point is, there is nothing wrong with having a tutorial video. Most of the "normal" users should watch it!!!

    On the subject of Chrome, it is a great browser. I have tried it, it's not my first choice but I'd prefer it over IE any day. Some of my "normal" computer user friends have it installed as part of other Google applications and when I have to use their computers I always end up using Chrome instead of IE.

    PS: Why do people refer to the Web as the Internet, I do not understand. IE should have been called Web Explorer (WE).

  • Comment number 22.

    "PS: Why do people refer to the Web as the Internet, I do not understand. IE should have been called Web Explorer (WE)."

    The internet is all of the interconnected computers / servers worldwide - the web is basically like a service that 'uses' or runs across the 'internet'.

    So technically IE should have been called 'Internet Explorer, over the web' and how do you expect to fit that text in a desktop shortcut :)

  • Comment number 23.

    The new search engine that everyone is talking about is Qlixter. Amazing technology with fantastic new features that surpass what Google gives you.

  • Comment number 24.

    Quote: "So technically IE should have been called 'Internet Explorer, over the web' and how do you expect to fit that text in a desktop shortcut :)"...

    Hmmmmm... Not exactly. The Web is a service that runs on top of the Internet, TCP/IP to be more specific. The Web is a collection of hypertext documents described in HTML and transported through HTTP. HTTP is just one of the many application layer protocols that run over the Internet.

    A browser is nothing more an HTTP client and an HTML rendering engine. That's why the name Internet Explorer is misleading. The name IE suggests that the program can explore the Internet. What is the definition of exploring the Internet? Maybe it's defined as the ability to look into IP packets, or act as a router?

    They are called Web Browsers for a reason, because that's what they do, they browse the WWWW and not the Internet.

  • Comment number 25.

    I was right with what i said, but the wrong way round :)

    Web Exlorer, over the internet....


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