Web browsers aren't just about surfing the Web anymore. With Microsoft, Mozilla and Google(!) introducing new browsers, the browser may just be more important than ever before. In this report I look at the current generation of Web browsers and what it means for the future of the Web and IT. Also, look below for links to reviews of all the latest Web browsers.
Just a few short years ago, it was hard to imagine a more stagnant product category than Web browsers.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer 6 and older versions of IE dominated the market with more than 95 percent of users. And, at the time, Microsoft had no plans to improve on its browsers, saying there would be no IE 7 until the launch of "Longhorn." Microsoft officials put more water on the browser flames by saying that browsers would go away as stand-alone applications, and that most Web activity would be handled by applications and operating systems.
Not everyone was convinced. People who were interested in an open and vibrant Web were pinning their hopes on the release of Firefox 1.0. These hopes weren't misplaced, as Firefox stole market share from IE and forced Microsoft to change course on its Web browser plans.
Fast-forward to today, and it's hard to imagine a more vibrant and more important technology sector than Web browsers. In the minds of many observers, the new browser wars are quickly replacing the old operating system wars in terms of determining how people and businesses will use computers, both on the Web and off.
In recent months, we've seen a rush of impressive and important new browser releases.
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Click the links below to read reviews of the recent browser releases. Google Chrome Makes a Good First Impression - Based on initial tests, Google Chrome looks to be an exciting and impressive new entry into the Web browser field.
IE 8's Private Progress - Beta 2 of Internet Explorer 8 shows promise with strong privacy controls and new usability features.
Firefox 3: The Next-Generation Web Browser - With new capabilities that will change the way that Web applications and content are developed and used, along with a host of welcome new usability and security features, Firefox 3.0 takes its place as the top choice in Web browsers.
Opera 9.5 Syncs Up Web Browsers - While not as innovative as past versions, Opera 9.5 does boost the already very good browser interface and provides increased security features and capabilities for synchronizing to mobile browsers.
Safari 3.1 Is Top Choice for Fast and Lean Browsing - If you're looking for a clean, simplified and fast Web browser, right now Safari 3.1 is the best choice, whether one is a Windows or Mac user.
Firefox 3.0 came out with underlying offline and application features that clearly make the browser an application platform, while smaller players such as Opera and Safari continued to offer innovative new features.
And, ironically, Internet Explorer 8 is shaping up to be the most significant and improved version of Microsoft's browser in a very long time.
But, of course, all of these new releases were recently overshadowed by the biggest new entry in the browser wars since the early days of the Web: Google's Chrome. The very existence of Chrome has forever changed the browser landscape, but the initial beta looks promising as far as capabilities go.
What does all of this mean for businesses that rely on the Web to get things done? Right now, everything is looking pretty rosy on the browser front.
With browser vendors' renewed emphasis on standards support and the need for all cloud- and SAAS (software as a service)-based applications to work on all browsers, the choice of browser can now be based on features and platform support.
Hopefully, this trend will continue, as it could lead to an even brighter future where all core applications and services are accessible to all users, no matter what their choice of browser or operating system.
However, there is a chance that this might not come about.
It's true that all the players are currently focused on standards and interoperability. But, as vendors start to offer more new features--especially in the areas of desktop integration and rich applications--we may start to see deviation from standards. This could lead to diversions and a replay of the operating system wars, where choice will be based on which browser runs which applications.
That's why the current state of the state is a good thing--as long as there is vibrant competition, it will be hard for different browsers to lock themselves away into proprietary silos.
So, let's be glad that the browser wars are back. Because in the case of the Web, a good war is preferable to a staid monopoly.