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Do Browser Wars Make Sense?

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?