[The following column was turned down by The Times Online because they suggested I had a conflict of interest. Of course that’s their prerogative, but given that my employment is posted at the bottom of every article I write for them, it’s not as if people don’t know where I’m coming from…]
In the next week or two, both Microsoft and Mozilla will be releasing major updates to their browsers – Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2. Tech journalists the world over are surely at this very moment dusting off their tired “browser war” headlines from the late 1990s, and conducting detailed comparative reviews which they will all release at the same time as the software, having cheated by basing their work on the beta versions.
“Tabs? Check. Phishing protection? Check. Feed reader? Check. Spell checking in form fields? Ooh, advantage Firefox. ‘Protected mode’? And it’s back to neck-and-neck…”
But I suggest there is another way to compare the two contenders aside from a feature-by-feature tick-list. It’s in the attitude the two organisations have shown to the users of their products.
Way back when in the late 90s (are you sitting comfortably?), Netscape and Microsoft were fighting over the growing browser market. These were the days when Java was the next big thing, <blink> was cool, and the HTML for the websites of major companies was still coded by hand.
Both browser makers burned the midnight oil to cram in more features. But, just as haste in placing the bottom bricks comes back to haunt you when you try and make your tower reach the ceiling, software has a limited ability to absorb quick-and-dirty changes and hacked-in enhancements before it becomes an unmaintainable mess. And Netscape’s tower topped out first.
Netscape 4 was inferior to IE 4, let alone IE 5 or 6, and the creaking codebase couldn’t be extended any further without disproportionate effort. So through a combination of monopolistic behaviour by Microsoft and suspect business decisions by Netscape, a victor emerged. As the nascent Mozilla project set off on a four-year odyssey rewriting the browser from the ground up, they ceded the field to Microsoft.
But how did Microsoft respond to this victory? Basically, they did nothing. Their market share was somewhere north of 90% and growing. This was job done as far as they were concerned. Through the wilderness years of the early part of the decade, as popups, spyware and viruses made the lives of web users a misery, Microsoft produced the bare minimum of security patches but nothing more. Why should they? Almost everyone used their product regardless. They had no interest in evolving the browser to meet the changing needs of the web’s growing population.
Then back came the Mozilla project with Firefox, a browser for the web as it is today. This coincided with the rise of rich web applications, which threatened to make the operating system irrelevant and turn the browser into the platform. After all, if your mail is from Yahoo and your word processor is from Google and you manage your photos with Flickr, does it really matter if you are doing it on Windows or Linux? (Ironically, the core technology which made this possible, the ‘XMLHTTPRequest’ object which lets web developers easily update pages without a reload, was invented by Microsoft for IE 6 [Correction: IE 5].)
Only at this point, when Microsoft felt threatened, did Bill rebuild the browser team to make IE 7. He needed to arrest the market share decline, and find a way to make the web experience best with proprietary Windows-only technology. So the creation of this new version is not motivated by his desire to provide a better surfing experience for their users, but his desire to keep control of the web and make sure it doesn’t threaten Microsoft’s platform hegemony.
Firefox, on the other hand, has been user-centered from the beginning. The original developers’ misery at having to produce Netscape 6 drove them to produce software they thought everyone else would want to use. The extension mechanism provides a safety valve through which the geekiest features can be pushed out and only installed by those who need them, allowing a relentless focus on usability and simplicity. Firefox is a browser made for you.
Yes, Microsoft have got off their backside and improved their product, and that can only be good for web users and developers. Yes, competition is good. But before you consider IE 7, ask yourself this – if Microsoft dumped you before, why won’t they do it again?