Do Browser Wars Make Sense?

April 8th, 2008

Although I suppose you and I are pretty well connected and all, I am willing to bet that most of you don’t concern yourself about which browser to use. Macs come with Safari, Windows PCs come with Internet Explorer and the vast majority of users of either platform simply use the browser that ships with your computer, without worrying so much about finding a substitute.

Indeed, if you look at those so-called Web stats, which supposedly estimate how much use a browser is getting, the figures will bear this out. Only a minority of you choose something other than what the “mother ship” provides. The same holds true, by the way, for email software.

Yes, we know that Internet Explorer has well-known interface and security lapses that must be fixed on a fairly regular basis. We also know that Firefox has gained a fairly decent percentage of the market, largely because more and more people are absolutely fed up with Microsoft. Even though there is a newer version of Internet Explorer, it seems that Microsoft’s browser share continues to plummet. Of course, you know the old saw about the bigger they are and all the rest.

In the end, though, most browsers, other than Internet Explorer, are probably more similar than different. Look over the basic feature sets of Firefox, Opera and Safari — and a host of derivatives or one-offs — and you will find such common elements as tabs and various ways to organize your bookmarks. If your browser crashes, you can generally reopen the application and reclaim the windows and sites from your last session.

Yes, folks, Safari 3.1 does have that feature, but it’s buried in the History menu. I suppose Apple regards all that as an attempt to revisit your history, so the logic seems to make sense after a fashion.

I suppose, though, that I’m as guilty as anyone when I write about an alleged browser war, where the developers of these applications are vying to reach the mountaintop first. With Internet Explorer losing millions of users every time some sort of survey is published, you can definitely see a trend.

But, with a few exceptions, browsers are free. Why would a company spend big dollars developing software that is being given away? Where’s the sense in that, particularly since there are employees whose salaries and benefits must be paid?

Well, it so happens that, because it’s free to you, it doesn’t mean there’s no source of income. Whenever you use a search engine in Firefox, be it Google, Yahoo or one of the other alternatives, you’ll see clickable banners in the search results. You click, and an advertiser pays the search company, who in turn pays Mozilla, the developer of Firefox and its derivatives. Google sends them tens of millions of dollars each year, which helps to fund their operations.

Now Apple makes a ton of cash from most everything it sells, and iTunes, aside from being a free digital media player application, is also a storefront that houses this country’s number one music retailer. But why give away Safari free to Windows users? Where’s the benefit in that and is Apple just tossing away money to the programmers who do the actual porting of Safari to Windows?

Well, as with Firefox, you have a Google search feature, and you can bet that Google isn’t there just because their CEO sits on Apple’s board. No, the search queries generate cash for Apple and, even at Safari’s present single digit market share on the Windows platform, you can be sure the income is more than sufficient to cover its development costs.

So, from search engine placement alone, it would seem that building browsers can indirectly become a profitable enterprise.

At the same time, does all this make a difference to you? Does it really matter which browser you use, so long as it’s reasonably fast and renders pages with decent accurately?

I suppose not, for the most part, assuming performance is otherwise pretty close in most respects. But there are other reasons why you might want to choose one over the other.

Firefox, for example, comes with a large repository of extensions that allow you to customize the look and feel and add features, such as automatic bookmark synchronization among different computers, which are missing from the core application. Sure, Apple lets you do the same thing in Safari with your .Mac membership, but that’s an extra cost option.

In my travels, though I find that most people don’t really care about any of this. If it works, that’s fine, and today — while using Internet Explorer may be a debatable issue — you can otherwise use any browser on the market and get an excellent online experience. Who needs a browser war?

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6 Responses to “Do Browser Wars Make Sense?”

  1. Dana Sutton says:

    “Why would a company spend big dollars developing software that is being given away? ” Income from placement of search engines such as Google is one answer. But why does MS insist on using its own proprietary code for Web design rather than adhering to industrywide standards, and put out a browser that’s tied in with this code? The conventional answer is that this has to do with selling MS software that adheres to this same proprietary code. But I’m not a hundred percent convinced this is true. What software? Front Page? FP scarcely seems a biggie in the MS lineup (they appear to agree, since they haven’t bothered updating it for the past five years). It’s a lot less than clear to me what economic advantage their policy is designed to protect.

  2. Well now they seem to want to make Internet Explorer 8 adhere to standards, at least with a specific setting. And they call that “innovation.”


    From my 24/7 iPhone

  3. Mike says:

    I think Microsoft thought a “browser war” made sense. Likewise, its current bid for Yahoo might be seen as a gambit in a “search war” with Google. He who gets search (and other online services) gets the advertising revenue.

    I think Joel Spolsky is enlightening on the browser war. There’s an old article of his “How Microsoft Lost the API War”:

    “The cornerstone of Microsoft’s monopoly power and incredibly profitable Windows and Office franchises, which account for virtually all of Microsoft’s income and covers up a huge array of unprofitable or marginally profitable product lines, the Windows API is no longer of much interest to developers. The goose that lays the golden eggs is not quite dead, but it does have a terminal disease, one that nobody noticed yet”

    The point here is that for some time developers have been moving to the web. Microsoft thought they couldn’t afford for Netscape to own the browser market, because then everything runs in the Netscape browser and not on the Windows API, and whether you were “compatible” with the Netscape browser and its “extensions” to HTML would be the important thing. And, of course, it wouldn’t even matter what OS your browser was running on. That would have put Netscape firmly in the driving seat. Microsoft spent millions — correction, billions — averting that. (Similarly it’ll spend billions trying to “kill” Google — cue chair-throwing jokes.)

    Spolsky even seems to suggest that, after killing Netscape, Microsoft *deliberately* neglected IE — that they didn’t do it out of negligence, but to retard web applications and make sure that people continued to use local applications, which is where they currently make their money:

    “Which means, suddenly, Microsoft’s API doesn’t matter so much. Web applications don’t require Windows.

    It’s not that Microsoft didn’t notice this was happening. Of course they did, and when the implications became clear, they slammed on the brakes. Promising new technologies like HTAs and DHTML were stopped in their tracks. The Internet Explorer team seems to have disappeared; they have been completely missing in action for several years.”

    Why they killed Netscape is obvious enough. I don’t know about the latter bit — that IE’s stagnation was deliberate. Are Redmond that deep? But from Spolsky, who is usually over-kind to Microsoft, that’s one worth thinking about. In any event, not keeping IE up-to-date seems to have backfired for Microsoft, thanks to Netscape (reborn as Mozilla), Opera, and Safari. Now developers code for Firefox/Opera/Safari, which have all converged on the standards and have to add ugly hacks after the fact just to make their code work in IE. Unsurprisingly, they resent this.

    Nowadays? Yeah, there’s a war on. Microsoft let IE for Mac lag behind IE for Windows. Apple *had* to start the Safari project, so that people who bought Apple machines could be certain of getting on the web and using modern web-based services without relying on any third-party. It was a survival thing for them.

    The other two dimensions to throw into the mix now are (1) technologies other than open standards-based technologies, and (2) the mobile web.

    First, there are ongoing attempts by Adobe to move people off web apps that use HTML/CSS/JavaScript and onto their own Flash and AIR technology — and Microsoft is attempting to do the same with Silverlight. (And, I guess, there’s Sun and what they’d like people to do with Java.)

    Secondly, there’s a new market here with customers wanting to browse the web on devices like the iPhone. Apple’s got a good foot in the door with the mobile version of Safari — currently, the most-used browser on mobile devices in the U.S. — and wants the web to remain usable with mobile Safari. As far as I can see, the best way for Apple to protect its position is for it to get as many people as possible — and that includes Windows users — using its browser. That way web developers have to take Safari into account and have to make sure their sites work with it. That way the iPhone remains attractive. Next best is if Firefox increases its market share, since Mozilla (unlike Netscape) is pursuing a standards-based policy. And I’d have thought from Apple’s point of view it’s good if Firefox continues to eat IE’s markets share. Still, surely better not to have to rely on third-parties too much.

    Moreover, it’s not just compatibility with every site’s HTML/CSS/JavaScript. If web developers move off standards-based technologies and onto Flash or Silverlight — a possibility I already pointed to — well, desktop/laptop users can get those easily enough, but these technologies aren’t going to work well on a handheld device. Besides, someone else controls them and could leverage their position to damage Apple if they so chose. (The update for Silverlight for the iPhone has been unavoidably delayed — that kind of thing.)

    I think a browser war is very much on. Hence the fact that the Safari box comes pre-ticked on the Apple Updater for Windows.

  4. I appreciate your viewpoints and the time you clearly spent fleshing this out.


  5. Adam says:

    Quick thought –
    Browsers drive revenue, revenue drives competition, from competition should come improvement and innovation.

    If this holds true, and I think most of it does most of the time, then the browser wars ultimately give us better browsers. Example: If Apple didn’t need to compete with Firefox, Camino, Opera, Omniweb, et al… would the gang in Cupertino have bothered with a tabbed interface? If not for the revenue inspired browser wars, maybe not. Have you used tabs in Terminal? Were it not for the browser showing off how handy this is would that innovation occurred, or occurred at this point in time?

    One of the things I have always loved about my Macs is Apple innovation (OK, maybe not so much in the sans-Steve era). As long as the browser wars help to drive innovation, I am all for it!


  6. Mike says:

    Apropos Adobe AIR, Gene, I just saw this:

    Mac world says: “And the fact that it’s cross-platform compatible is a boon for Mac users, who won’t be left out of the mix.”

    A boon for Mac users perhaps, but perhaps not so much of a one for Apple — if it does take off. And, if it does, one wonders where that leaves the phone.

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