Thursday, 2 December 2010

Browser wars

For the last fifteen years or so, there has been a series of wars in the web browser market. It has been going on quietly in the background, occasionally flaring up into the news headlines. It has been bitter, with verbal rather than physical combat. Their have been victims, browsers that have been abandoned to turn into dust.

The original mass-market browser was Netscape (itself based on Mosaic, one of the first web browsers). Netscape had over 90% of the browser market in the 1990s, but this declined rapidly as Microsoft's free Internet Explorer browser took the lion's share of the market from 1995. Netscape only released a free version of their browser in 1998, far too late to reverse the decline.

It should be noted that Microsoft's success was not just down to the fact it was offered free with all Windows PCs; Netscape made a rod for their own back by trying to pack features into their browser, adding many bugs in the process. IE also made large steps forward in functionality, but without so many bugs. In the end there was only one real choice for a PC browser: IE.

After the release of IE 6 in August 2001, Microsoft made what must be one of their largest tactical mistakes: they disbanded the IE development team. Although it is hard to believe through the vestiges of time, IE 6 was a good browser. However, the lack of development meant that it soon became dated.

The next version, IE 7, was not released until 2006; this gave MS's competitors five years to develop their browsers. In the meantime, MS's corporate customers got used to IE 6, a bond that is still proving difficult to break (some figures have IE6 at 16% of the browser market; my own website over the last month shows that a small 6% of users used IE6). As a result, although IE is still by far the most popular browser, it is not the best, or to be fair the most modern. IE9 is far better than previous attempts, but is still lacking in some areas when compared to, for instance, Chrome.

Over the last couple of years, this war has moved onto a new battlefield; mobile devices. All the major players in the browser market are hurriedly making browsers that work on mobile devices, although this is queered by two factors: the desktop dominates IE's userbase, and Apple locks down their systems making it hard for other browsers to work on their devices.

If you read the tech forums, then many of these browsers have their fans, and many hot words are said for and against them. Poor old IE, however, gets scorn and derision heaped upon it. Some of this is deserved; much of it is not. The truth is that any modern browser can do virtually everything that a home user would want, and these flame wars are based on things that only techies are interested in. The average end-user cares little if his on-line video is delivered by Flash, H264, MP4, or Theora; they just want to watch the video without interruption.

All the talk of standards, formats and speed are not as vital as crash-free browsing. There is no real difference in browsing, say, the BBC News website in any of the major browsers. A 10% difference in speed of loading will hardly be noticed, but a crash will. The browser vendors will forget that at their peril. In the consumer market, stability rules.

The browser wars have had positive effects. The first browser war gave us free browsers and choice. The second is pushing forward the capabilities of the web at a frightening pace, making it possible to do all sorts of magical things (e.g. Google Maps et al).

The third war is on mobile platforms, and the battle is only just heating up The winner is hard to see: Apple and Google are the two major competitors, with radically differing approaches.  Microsoft is playing catch-up, but is hindered by its historic position in the desktop market.

All do the job well, and the devil is really in the detail. Whichever you choose will almost certainly do what you want. So why not download a couple and try them out? You have choice: use it.


The Odyssee said...

Hi David,
I my humble opinion i agree with Apples philosophy of not wanting to corrupt itself which is easy to do with lots of drivel software available for windows.
Although they have now made windows available on Apple if you are desperate enough to want to buy it.
In the main Apple users do stick with Safari and why not it’s very good.
It is also available for windows users to download. They should try it and see if they like it. I know there is the odd glitch with it but it is still extremely good.

David Cotton said...


Safari is reasonable on a Mac (comparable with Chrome, Firefox and even IE 9), but six months ago the UI and usability was terrible on Windows. Of course, it may have improved since then.

I think you are being unfair on Windows. Microsoft have to cater for literally millions of different combinations of processors, monitors, memory, graphics cards, sound cards and other ephemera. This is an almost impossible task, and the fact that Windows works as well as it does is a credit to them.

In comparison, Apple control their own hardware. This makes writing an OS much easier; the more control you have, the fewer targets you need to cater for.

Microsoft do an amazing job given the fragmentation of the PC market.
What is more, that very fragmentation has created the brilliant, lively computer market that we have today. We have IBM to thank for that.

Apple hardware and software is superb, but also exceptionally pricey. Thank God that Windows and Linux exist to provide quality mainstream alternatives.

Alan Sloman said...

Blimey - a blog on internet stuff that I actually understand! Well said, David.
I use Chrome because I was told that using Microsoft's I.E. left you more open to viruses. Seem to work and haven't been troubled with the damn things since moving over. (No idea why though as I am not a techie!)

David Cotton said...

Hi Alan,

The main problems wrt viruses and IE are (IMHO) twofold:

IE has a significant market share, making it a valuable target for virus writers. If you wish to exploit a flaw, do you target 60% of a market or just 20%?

Secondly, IE and Windows were written when viruses and worms were less of a threat. Much of the code was not written with Internet security in mind, and MS have been working hard to fix this. It is an exceptionally difficult task, especially as some exploits can now be made at CPU level.

Combine these two and you see why MS has been hit so hard; they had an old code base and were worth targeting.

All browsers and OSs have significant exploits available. I regularly use Chrome, Opera, IE and Firefox as main browsers, and critical flaws have been found in all of them over the past six months.

The Odyssee said...

Hi David,
It may have come across as though i was unfair to microsoft and windows, but i’m not. I have both, Apple Mac and Windows on a Thinkpad.
Thats because some software i want to use is windows only.
Apple is expensive but worth it. I got so fed up with constant battles with virus’s,crash’s, glitches, dodgy software on windows that i splashed out and i am so glad that Apple do have control. It’s an absolute pleasure to use.
My point is only on the quality and control and definitely not at the people who buy windows kit. I am just making the point that Safari is available to windows users if they care to give it a go.