Browser School Daze

Opinion: The tables are turned as IE's grades rise while Firefox's drop.

Everybody probably knows of a family, or is a member of one, in which one of the children is an overachiever and one is an underachiever.

Normally, its good to be the overachieving kid—except on those occasions when you slip a little and get a B+ instead of your normal A. Then, parents and teachers might ask you why you werent able to reach your normal level of excellence; they may even appear to be disappointed in you.

Call this the curse of high expectations: where even pretty darn good seems to be a failure.

Even worse is when an overachievers slip happens at about the same time that the underachieving kid gets his or her act together somewhat and starts to get decent grades. This heretofore slacker now will be getting lots of praise from parents and teachers for finally showing some effort. This can drive the overachieving kid nuts, especially in the not-uncommon situations where the underachieving kid is already more popular at school.

You can see a very similar dynamic in technology product markets. In fact, were seeing it right now, in the return of the browser wars.

On one side of the browser family you have Mozillas Firefox, a darling of reviewers and Internet power users who love its attention to detail and strong feature sets. And on the other side you have Microsofts Internet Explorer, long chastised as a spreader of worms and security problems and seen by critics and power users as a browser that hasnt been working hard to improve for years.

Even the popularity comparison works in this situation: Firefox, the overachiever, has a small but loyal group of friends, while IE, the underachiever, is extremely popular in the playground of Internet users.

But big changes came in the recent round of beta releases for each browser. With the betas of IE 7, the Microsoft browser has been showing its first real improvements in years. Sure, most of the new features are things that Firefox and other browsers have had for some time, but at least IE is trying and seems to be motivated to improve. Good for you, IE—heres a star!

/zimages/2/28571.gifRead a review of IE 7 Beta 3 here.

On the other hand, reviewers and some power users have been a little disappointed that Beta 1 of Firefox 2.0 doesnt seem to live up to Firefoxs normal standards—that the browser may even be resting a bit on its laurels. Hmm, whats going on here? Maybe we should sit down and have a talk with Firefox.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read a review of Firefox 2.0 Beta 1.

This is maddening to Firefox proponents, who can make a very good case that when the new browsers are released, Firefox 2.0 will be superior to IE 7. IE will have gone from a D to a B, but Firefox will have gone from an A to a B+.

But, just as in a family of people, this dynamic can be a good thing for the whole Internet family. With one child who is now motivated to do the right thing, theres less chance that unsavory or risky behavior will find its way into the home. And the overachiever is learning a valuable lesson about getting off the floor and trying harder.

The Net family will be a lot safer and healthier with an IE that is more secure, more standards-based and more capable overall. And if some seem uninspired by Firefox 2.0, that just means its developers will work even harder to make the next version a star.

If Firefox developers dont believe that this can happen, they should look to Firefoxs cousin, Opera. With the 8.0 release, the Opera browser didnt get many kudos—mostly deservedly, as that version of the browser wasnt up to Operas normal standards. But then Opera 9.0 came out and was lauded (by yours truly) as the best browser available.

/zimages/2/28571.gifTo read Jims review of Opera 9, click here.

So, its time for teacher to hand out the grades, and some final words.

Opera 9.0: Youre doing fantastic work—its good to see you back in form. Grade: A+.

Firefox 2.0 Beta 1: Youre not working up to your usual level. Youre still looking good, but I would like to see you try harder. Grade: B+.

IE 7 Beta 3: Great job. Its good to see you applying yourself, finally. I knew you had it in you. Grade: B.

This is turning out to be such a nice class. Its not at all like that one with the e-mail kids—Im never sure what theyre going to do, and I think I may have caught something from one of them.

Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at

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