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The Great Browser Race to Absurdity

Since Opera released the first alphas and betas for Opera 10.5 beginning last year, they’ve been able to boast of having the speediest browser on the planet. Test after test shows tiny increments of advantage over Google Chrome, Firefox and, of course, Safari. You hardly count Internet Explorer in such benchmarks, since it trails the pack by a such a huge margin.

Now the specifics of those tests aren’t important unless you live your life at a frantic pace where a few milliseconds here or there will somehow impact your earnings potential or your emotional stability.

But that hasn’t stopped the hard-working developers of all those products from working feverishly to unearth even the most miniscule cause of a rendering slowdown, and eradicating it pronto. I mean, just think how all this impacts your Web surfing experience.

Now I do not intend to put down the hard workers at Opera. I know some of them. They are good people and they pioneered many of the features that we take for granted these days, including tabs. However, they have fallen way behind in the performance race in recent years, except for Internet Explorer of course. So finding a way to jump to the top of the heap is a great thing.

However, such tests need to be put in perspective. The ones I’ve read recently are based on prerelease versions of Chrome and Opera, along with the nightly updates to Apple’s WebKit, against the release versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer. Already there’s a problem, since that which makes the browser faster may also create instabilities that, when fixed, will slow things down somewhat. The results you see today will change when the final release appears.

As a practical matter, what difference does it make in the real world?

I mean, when you scale differences down to fractions of a second, I can’t think anyone would notice. The vagaries of Internet connection speeds, network traffic and the amount of people trying to access a specific site will have far more to do with perceived performance than whether Opera is a hair faster than Chrome.

Past the miniscule performance differences, there are such mundane things as features, interface, usability and, naturally, stability. This combination of factors should be forefront when you consider which app to use. Since they are all free, nothing stops you from installing a few browsers and switching from one to the other to see which one offers the most comfortable environment for you. Yes, you want to know that your favorite sites will be rendered as accurately as speedily as possible. But, other than Internet Explorer, which thankfully is a Windows-only product these days, they are all quite accurate in most respects and do adhere to the latest Web standards.

In terms of security, we’re talking about responsible developers here. If there’s a problem, they’ll fix it. Sure, Apple gets brickbats for not getting security updates out as quickly as they should, but at the end of the day, Mac OS X still remains quite resilient. A widespread virus infection has yet to occur, and much of the existing malware out there is based on social engineering. If you download the wrong thing, or click on the wrong Web site and give out too much information, you put yourself in danger.

In all this, though, I have to wonder just what Microsoft is thinking, and whether their executives have even a modicum of a sense of reality. While the best browsers all perform pretty much alike in the real world in terms of rendering speeds, Internet Explorer remains far slower in nearly every benchmark. When I see apps that are at least a couple of dozen times faster than IE in those tests, you have to wonder whether Microsoft’s developers are basically incompetent at what they do. If much tinier companies can build browsers with more features, superior security, and far better performance and rendering accuracy, shouldn’t Microsoft start paying attention?

Sure, they tell us that IE 9 will be faster, that it will provide improved adherence to Web standards and so on and so forth. But as IE’s market share continues to tumble, how long will it take for its publisher to realize that something is wrong and needs to be addressed pronto?

Yes, I realize part of the problem is that Microsoft wants to retain legacy features, such as support for that notoriously unstable ActiveX scheme, but at what cost?

Now in a previous column, I suggested that they might do well to simply throw the existing IE code base overboard and embrace, for example, Apple’s WebKit. Maybe that seems a strange request, but don’t forget that Google did the very same thing with Chrome, even though Apple and Google are not exactly friends anymore.

Nothing stops Microsoft from building a WebKit version of Internet Explorer. They could even confer a different brand name upon it, so that it wouldn’t be saddled with IE’s sorry reputation. How about the Bing Browser? Has a ring to it, don’t you think?