Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Firefox: Finally, a credible threat to Google?

Today there is an extremely interesting article in WSJ about Firefox's threat to Google. No this is not about Firefox vs. Google's Chrome browser. It is about a small feature in recent Firefox browsers that stores web-pages accessed via the browser off-line and presents this locally-stored content as search results to users as they type words into the Firefox browser's address bar. Such local caching is not a new concept, but the nice interface that Firefox provides is certainly a huge improvement. The article says that local caching of data will eventually erode the high number of search requests going to Google, thereby reducing the value of its search engine. Local caching makes sense for users who get their (locally available) content faster, can access cached content when off-line, and do not have to pay for bandwidth. It makes sense for the content providers that do not have to serve the same content multiple times to the same user, and it makes sense for ISPs whose (flat-rate) bandwidth is spared.

But before content can be cached locally, it needs to be searched and found (at least once) on the Internet...and there is a good chance Google will be employed to do this first search. Still, from my experience I will say that I often search the Internet for the same information. With a convenient locally accessible cache, I would cut the number of times I go to Google. Moreover, there is talk in academic circles about "leaf computing", the opposite of cloud computing. The idea of leaf computing is to build distributed computing platforms. For example, a bunch of like-minded individuals can self-organize their computers into a distributed, specialized web-crawler that goes and searches the Internet for relevant information to index, or syncs up the saved book-marks/local Firefox caches of several users. If there is enough bandwidth and storage on the 'leaf' computers, then why not move away from cloud computing and into a distributed leaf computing architecture?

From a Google Ad-sense point of view, I think Google may modify its search engine usage terms to have the right to serve ads even on locally cached content if this content was initially found using Google. Others may argue that all the value is delivered to a user the first time search results are used (like buying a song: you pay the same no matter how many times you listen), and so Google cannot serve ads for locally cached content. Does Google have the right to serve ads on locally stored content that it initially found? This is analogous to the TIVO advertisement issue of whether advertisement slots bought for a live show can be removed and other advertisements inserted for later recorded playback.

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