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Issue Date: February 2009, Posted On: 2/17/2009

The browser war is back – expect user casualties

By Vin D’Amico


Vin D’Amico

The browser war between Microsoft and Mozilla came to an end in 2001 when Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6. This browser quickly captured over 90 percent of the market leading to browser stagnation.

Now it appears that the browser war is back, but this time it is different. There are five major browsers in this renewed battle: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome and Opera. The browser market is heating up and we could all get burned.

Microsoft continues to dominate the market, though their market share is declining. Firefox and Opera have been around a while and continue to fight for recognition. Now we have Apple and Google entering the battle with Safari and Chrome, respectively.

The danger we face is that browsers may interpret standards differently or even invent new ones. We could have a situation where we need to use different browsers for different Web sites.

Here is a rundown of the major browsers and issues.

Internet Explorer currently controls about 70 percent of the market despite non-conformance to industry standards. It only runs on Microsoft Windows and has lagged behind other browsers in features and usability. It remains popular simply because it is bundled into Windows making it the default choice.

Microsoft wants to make the transition from the desktop to the Web seamless. Internet Explorer is their vehicle for achieving that goal. Internet Explorer will need to become more open and standards compliant to get there. Microsoft controls the desktop but the Web is a different battlefield.

Mozilla’s Firefox has a 20 percent market share. Mozilla is a non-profit organization that develops a variety of software including browser, e-mail, instant messaging and calendar applications. Firefox is open source and standards compliant. It has a wealth of features particularly when you take advantage of the many available plug-ins.

Firefox is not tied to any software vendor. It runs on the major operating systems including Windows, Mac and Linux. The major issue that Firefox continues to fight is performance where the browser lags behind some of its competitors.

Apple’s Safari controls about 7 percent of the market consisting primarily of Mac users though it runs on Windows also. Apple is aggressive about pitching Safari to anyone who downloads iTunes or QuickTime.

Mac users have good reasons to use Safari. It is bundled with the Mac and integrated with that environment. Windows users have little enticement except that Safari performs well on sites that use lots of Javascript.

Opera and Chrome each have less than 1 percent of the market. Opera has been around for several years but has never caught on. It is a feature-rich browser offering many built-in features such as mouse gestures. It is also relatively fast and efficient.

Opera suffers from trying to be all things to all people. Lack of focus and poor marketing have held it back in the marketplace.

Finally, Google’s Chrome is the newest browser. Chrome is so new that it lacks many features one would expect to find, such as support for plug-ins. Only Windows is currently supported.

Chrome is the most interesting browser of this group. Many of us are left wondering “Why does the world need another browser?” The answer to this question goes well beyond the limits of browsers as we know them.

Google wants to build a platform for Web-based applications. Google envisions a world where the desktop computer and its operating system do not matter. What will matter are Web-based applications running within a browser. The browser could be running on a desktop, laptop, netbook, smartphone or whatever the future brings.

Google is understandably concerned that today’s browsers will not be up to the task of being application platforms rather than just Web site rendering software.

It is too soon to adopt Chrome for general-purpose use, but it is the browser to watch.

It is nice to have choices but there are risks. The danger we face is having several browsers, which are each optimized for particular Web sites and technologies. Imagine having to use Internet Explorer for Microsoft sites, Safari for Apple sites and Chrome for Google sites.

To avoid that, browser developers must adopt industry standards. When the standards fall short, developers must submit new ideas for inclusion in the standards. It is the only way to prevent divergence and chaos on the Web.

Microsoft, as the market leader, must stop defending the desktop and start innovating. Mozilla, as the open source advocate, must join with other open-source projects and stop reinventing the wheel.

Apple and Google both use open-source components in their browsers. Apple takes more from the open-source community than it gives back. That needs to change. Google does more to promote open-source but they need to be forthcoming about their vision and direction.

The browser war is back and, hopefully, the winner is us.

Vin D'Amico is president of Damicon. He specializes in agile processes and freelance writing. He can be reached at vin@damicon.com.

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