Do the Browser Wars Still Matter?

August 13th, 2010

Once upon a time, there was a battle to the death between Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Microsoft made their product leaner and meaner, forced it onto PC desktops, and, in the end, defeated an increasingly bloated rival.

On the Mac platform, Microsoft convinced (some say coerced) Apple to make Internet Explorer the default browser, and, for several years, this situation persisted. Indeed, the original Public Beta of Mac OS X had a native version of Internet Explorer.

Having won the browser wars, development of Internet Explorer languished on both the Mac and Windows platforms. No sense in investing development dollars for a product that is not only free, but is already way ahead of the pack. The few remaining rivals had pitiful market shares.

In the space of a few years, some fascinating things happened. Mozilla, the non-profit organization that rose out of the ashes of Netscape came up with Firefox. Apple, not seeing any improvements in Internet Explorer, adapted a Unix-based browser engine, KHMTL, and created an open source alternative known as WebKit, which powered the Safari browser. In turn, Microsoft withdrew the Mac version of Internet Explorer.

Yes, Safari was lean when it came to features, but it blew the pants off IE when it came to performance and compatibility with most prevailing Web standards. Microsoft simply marched to its own beat, hoping to enforce proprietary standards that would tether people to their highly profitable products whenever possible.

As it stands in 2010, MSIE’s worldwide market share has dropped below 60%. Firefox has a good portion of the remainder, with Google Chrome (which uses Apple’s WebKit rendering engine), Safari and Opera bringing up the rear. There are other contenders, but these are the majors.

When it comes to performance and compatibility, Internet Explorer’s competition has worked hard to best the most difficult compatibility tests — currently Acid3 — and deliver blazing performance. It has almost reached the point where all or most of the alternative browsers deliver pages seamlessly, as fast as the state-of-the-art and connection speeds allow.

To nobody’s surprise, Microsoft has decided it’s high time to become competitive once again, and the forthcoming IE 9 promises to match the competition in all significant respects, including enhanced support for HTML5. There will, of course, be no returning to the Mac platform, even though the Bing search engine is now an option on the latest Safari.

The goal to boost performance and increase compatibility for all sites that are compliant with current standards has basically made your choice of browser almost a non-issue, at least if you’re not a power user. They all support a basic set of features, such as adding and managing bookmarks and delivering pages as tabs rather than new document windows.

Yes, you can list a number of areas where individual browsers sport unique capabilities, or at least different ways of doing the same things, and those features might appeal to power users who crave greater levels of control over their browsing experience.

At the same time, if you can depend on getting an essentially identical rendering experience regardless of which browser you choose — in other words pages look essentially the same — do the various and sundry choices matter so much anymore?

Now to be perfectly fair, the ongoing browser wars have been good, because the developers of each have had big incentives to make their products batter. That applies even more to Microsoft, which pretty much gave up on building a decent browser years ago, and left us with the pathetic Internet Explorer 6, notorious not just for its inability to fully support Web standards, but those well-known security lapses.

That Microsoft has decided to build a promising IE upgrade has little to do with the normal state of developing new products, but as the result of serious competition.

But for most of you, I dare say most any modern browser will get the job done. On a Mac, you can stick with Safari, unless another app has unique features you prefer. Indeed, I don’t perceive any significant advantages in Google Chrome that make me want to switch. Now that Safari supports extensions, one of the most intriguing options in Firefox may not be so compelling, unless you crave an add-on for which there’s no equivalent in Safari. And if there’s enough demand, a Safari version might ultimately arrive.

Opera often pioneers features that end up in other browsers. It’s a fairly lightweight app that also includes a decent email application, one that might be a deal maker if you aren’t enamored of Apple Mail, Thunderbird, Microsoft Entourage or any of the other popular alternatives.

For Windows users, when IE 9 comes out, I suppose it’ll be all right to upgrade. But since Microsoft must be dragged kicking and screaming to improve their browser, you’d be better off using something else, if only to send a message to Microsoft that they can’t take customers for granted and fall down on the job all over again.

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9 Responses to “Do the Browser Wars Still Matter?”

  1. dfs says:

    “Now to be perfectly fair, the ongoing browser wars have been good, because the developers of each have had big incentives to make their products batter. ” I’m afraid I don’t see what these big incentives are. Back in the days of the browser wars, it was assumed that winning the war would somehow lead to great profitability. That’s why with very few exceptions, browser developers were giving away their products as if they were free kittens. But did this profitability ever materialize? I didn’t understand the premise back then, and I still don’t understand it today. I suspect the “browser wars“ were based on industry forecasts and business models that never panned out. Anyway, Gene, there is still at least one way in which browsers do significantly differ, which has to do with their ability to render formated text with full accuracy. Last time I looked, IE still had significant problems with this.

    • Thib says:


      I agree with you that it isn’t obvious what the “big incentives” are. Many people believe that competition is a good thing because it drives innovation. Well, no. That’s a capitalist assumption that doesn’t necessarily pan out.

  2. DaveD says:

    I remembered accidentally launching IE back in the Mac OS 8 days. My hatred for anything from Microsoft was in high gear after Apple lost their court suit. I trashed most of junk from Microsoft except for the fonts and stayed with Netscape through version 7. Talking about bloat, Netscape 7 was stuffed. But, I liked the Tabbed Browsing feature.

    In the early part of Mac OS X evolution, I found OmniWeb. It was a nice, but slow browser and did a great job rendering web pages. So, it became my main browser until Safari and Firefox came along. On an older PowerPC Mac, OmniWeb and the spinning rainbow cursor were a pair. Safari and Firefox pushed OmniWeb into number three browser slot.

    After getting my first Intel Mac, OmniWeb became a much better browser on it. However, I stayed with Safari and Firefox. I recalled Firefox had a horrendous memory leak which was later fixed. Safari was becoming a memory hog. When the number of tabs in Safari hit the maximum on the window, the remaining tabs were placed on an access list on the last tab. Every time I reopened Safari, I had to repeat the same motion of going to the History menu and selecting “reopen all from last session.” So, Firefox became my number one browser (using flash blocker) where tabbed browsing is so much better followed by a better performing OmniWeb and Safari is now number three.

    I have been on a Windows machine and used IE 8. It looked complicated and cumbersome. I did not miss much.

  3. winc06 says:

    I sort of wish the competition affected Apple more, especially in the appearance flexibility department. The brushed metal, platinum effect or whatever it is called these days has no more legible alternative apparently. Whoever thought it was it was good ergonomics to design a medium gray frame with black labels and darker gray tabs with the same black type that disappears in some lighting conditions without the perfect angle on my Powerbook ought to be chastised. It makes the reduction of screen brightness to extend battery life totally useless.To add insult to injury an unselected Safari page lightens and is more legible. Dumb. Not something I usually say about Apple.

  4. Thib says:

    That Microsoft is developing IE9 signals that it finds developing a
    Web browser significant, but why is that so? The reasoning the author gives is that there’s competition doesn’t really answer the why. After all why should Microsoft care about browser competition. Why is it improtant for them to have a browser of their own? What does Microsoft portently see such that having a browser is important enough for them? After all, he browser is free and it isn’t immediately obvious to me what they gain from having their own browser.

    • Tom B says:

      @Thib, 1) MSFT uses IE to promote otherwise moribund technologies like Silverlight. 2) MSFT wants IE to stay dominant in Enterprise intranet environments, where they can stuff it chuck full of bogus Windows-only add-ons, like ActiveX which never got very far on the web as a whole, because it is proprietary.

      What I don’t get is why so many Win users like Chrome. It’s not as full-featured as Firefox; it’s not as fast as Safari. Does Safari suck on Windows? On the Mac, I use ONLY FF and Safari; between them, they serve my needs superbly.

    • Walt French says:

      @Thib, Microsoft cares about the wars because a huge fraction of its Enterprise developers only code for the version of IE that their desktops have. For example, the firm that pays my salary has not moved up from IE6 in part because many of our inhouse resources depend on IE6 quirks to look right.

      Meanwhile, you can’t surf the “outside” web without being told that you can’t view the site correctly with that browser. Or IE6 just locks up.

      So MSFT has to enjoy the reputation of delivering crappy, obsolete software, while charging top dollar for all the systems that support the nonsense. And while they make no money off of XBox, phones, Zunes or anything else that first appeared only in the last twenty years, that’s in part because they’re so dragging the Office/WinDesktop/WinServers revenues to the bank. They cannot afford to lose the only thing they have going for them.

      So, they’re being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century.

  5. Dave Barnes says:

    Browser WARS do no matter.
    Browser SHARE does.
    If IE ever gets back up to 95+%, then we will be back to websites that only work with IE.

  6. dfs says:

    Even if IE climbed back to 95% market share I don’t see how this would translate into profitability for MS. Because their own page-creation software would become dominant in the marketplace? I doubt it, this kind of software has never loomed very largely in their scheme of things or made them much money, and if IE were to become that serious developers such as Adobe would simply adjust their software to suit and continue dominating the market. So from I don’t see how having sites that only work with IE translates into some sort of cash cow for MS. (I’ve never tried MS page-creation products, but if the sort of bloated crap code that you get when you save a Word file as an html document is any sort of indication, then Adobe has nothing to worry about).

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