Browser Vendors Need to Quit Monkeying Around

Users are pointing to the places where they wish developers would look for opportunity.

If you point toward a place where food is hidden, a chimpanzee will get the hint only about once in every four trials. If you reach out toward the bananas hiding place yourself, though, as if to take whatever might be there, the chimpanzee is twice as likely to get the idea—and go after the goodies himself.

This result, from research published last month in the journal "Animal Behavior," may explain the perverse behavior of IT markets. Vendors are quick to go after a niche that they see a competitor pursuing, even though that guarantees a struggle. Theyre much less likely, it seems, to make the effort to understand customers hints about the potential rewards of real innovation, even though that could yield priceless first-mover advantage.

Web browsers are one timely example. You may think of browser wars as passé, but things are heating up again. Just last month, the Mozilla Foundations lightweight Firefox browser surpassed that groups own 10-day goal by achieving more than 1 million downloads of the 1.0 Preview release—on only the fifth day of its availability.

The folks at Opera profess to welcome the Firefox competition on the theory that anythings good that pushes people to think about alternatives to Internet Explorer. And Opera is still in the game: An enthusiastic e-mail from my campus-dwelling son hails Opera 7.5 as "simply beautiful" and urges me to give it a shot at displacing the full-blown Mozilla 1.7.3 from its place as the hub of my own assorted desktops.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to read Labs review of Opera 7.5.

Meanwhile, well-funded post-IPO Google has bought the rights to the domain name "" through April 2006 and has hired some of the industrys top talent in user interface, database, Java and (oh, yeah, that old thing) IE development away from Microsoft and Sun.

The chimpanzees, if I may use this metaphor without giving offense, are scrambling for the low-hanging fruit.

It would be a shame, though, if all this talent pursues the same not-very-well-hidden bananas. Weve learned a lot, in the last 10 years or so, about what people want to do with the Web. New development efforts should go into meeting that need, not just incrementally refining and extending the same old browser ideas.

For example, when I saw Microsofts "Longhorn" demonstrations at the companys Professional Developers Conference in Los Angeles about a year ago, the most impressive thing about the new desktop metaphor was the way it made the Web a surrounding environment instead of confining it to a few little windows. I admired the way that the desktops sidebar automatically integrated tracking information for product shipments en route following online purchases. These and other actions taken by the user left appropriate information artifacts in the users peripheral vision; it became easy to keep track of what had been recently done and what might soon be happening as a result.

But Longhorn itself wont soon be happening. It will be three years, in all likelihood, before we see much uptake for whatever follows Windows XP—a future release that seems, with every fresh announcement, to be less worthy of breathless anticipation.

The market share of IE is still in the 90-plus percentages, but compounding formulas work for shrinkage as well as they do for growth. If IE were to lose, say, 5 percent of its users each month for the next three years, its market share would fall to something like 15 percent. That leaves ample room for new ideas, based on improved understandings.

/zimages/5/28571.gifJim Rapoza says Microsofts IE migration policy will encourage some users to abandon the browser altogether. Click here to read his column.

Google, for example, understands the Web as a place where people search for things. Amazon understands the Web as a place where people compare and buy things. Financial institutions understand the Web as a place where people monitor situations and make decisions about trading things. Any of these understandings can be rendered in a browser—but thats like reducing all forms of art to photographs instead of letting each one take full advantage of its own medium.

Users are pointing to the places where they wish developers would look for opportunity. Come on, guys: Quit monkeying around.

Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at

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