Friday, November 07, 2003

Browsing Around

I’m beginning to get the feeling that Microsoft is soon going to see additional competition in the battle for the browser. What makes this particularly interesting is that this is a battle that Microsoft has already won.

By some estimates, Microsoft has more than 90% of the browser market. They have effectively driven Netscape to the sidelines, and until Opera began making inroads, there was little other competition.

But all of that is changing now. Opera keeps gaining strength – it has been ported to some Nokia cell phones and won a major design award in Japan. They’ve done this despite the fact that they have to sell their product (there is an advertiser-supported version that can be downloaded for free) while Microsoft incorporates theirs within the Operating System.

Netscape, last seen lying in a ditch on the side of the road with Microsoft’s tire tracks running up its back, and AOL’s tire marks running along each side, has quietly been rewriting and improving its browser. The latest version, 7.1 blocks most pop ups and gives users the ability to allow pop-ups from certain domains. On the stupid side, one of the default domains is http://www.aol.com, but it can easily be disabled.

While I am still very, very partial to Opera, I’ve been using the Netscape browser for some of my Open Directory Project editing and found it to be quite nice.

Also gaining some attention is Mozilla, an open-source web browser, designed for standards compliance, performance and portability. The developers at Netscape coordinate the development and testing of the browser by providing discussion forums, software engineering tools, releases and bug tracking. Release 1.5 of this product earned several major awards from both the PC and Linux trade press.

I’ve tried it. I like it, and dear readers, you know that I dislike a lot more than I tend to like.

A quick visit to http://www.download.com shows that there are dozens of smaller browsers available for download.

So I have to ask you this: would there be as much competition if Microsoft was delivering a browser that generally met the needs of the user community? A browser that was safe and secure, that guarded privacy, that was not bloated, that stopped pop ups? I didn’t think so.

Yet, to be fair, Microsoft has been busy as well. Granted, the feature set of Internet Explorer has become pretty staid; most of the new features have been aimed at helping the big website developers, not at addressing the very real needs of users, other than in ways that compliment the operating system. Microsoft seems to be focusing on further integrating the browser as part of the operating system, and I would not be surprised to see the idea of a stand alone browser go away completely.

In many ways I see Microsoft becoming very IBM like in this matter. They have this huge franchise, called Windows, to protect, and it seems as though every product they launch, every update, every patch needs to somehow buttress that franchise. When I think back about how IBM really, really blew it with the PC and with their early efforts at the operating system. Why? Because they were more interested in protecting their franchise in mainframes, then they were in being truly innovative.

So what does all of this mean for the average user? Probably nothing because the average user is going to take whatever comes with the operating system and not know any different. Then let me rephrase the question: What does all of this mean for the average, enlightened Computerbits reader? Potentially a lot. The number of different development efforts will mean that the voice of the user will be heard. If users want certain features, they will get them from a browser vendor who does not have a franchise to protect. If one browser vendor doesn’t provide the features you want, then another likely will. That, my friends, is exciting.

Look at what Opera has done. Nearly every aspect of the browser can be customized. Don’t like the look and feel, download one of the dozens and dozens of skins that will change the design and color of the buttons. Don’t want pop-ups, not problem. Want to really manage your cookies, again not a problem. Want to change a setting, easy to do. Like the idea of tabbed browsing? You won’t find that in Internet Explorer, and once you’ve tried it, you will never want to go back. Does Microsoft offer that? Do they offer a browser that runs on Windows, Linux, MacIntosh, OS/2, Symbian, and Solaris? No, because they have a franchise to protect.

Now I’m not saying that Microsoft is bad, or wrong. Hey, I just wish that I personally had a zillion-dollar franchise to protect – I’d probably find myself on a first-name basis with the door guards at the Justice Department Criminal Division. It is just that having a franchise to protect makes one look at markets and competition differently, and make product decisions that are, well, safe. Having a big enough franchise to protect means that you can no longer squash competitors with impunity. Big brother is watching every move, very, very carefully.

The irony is, that in technology, once a competitor (i.e. Microsoft) gets a big enough share of a market, its competitive hands get tied, and brand new competition suddenly finds there is room to maneuver – and if they maneuver well, they can start taking away market share by offering better features.

Well how about that?


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