Are the browser wars back?
Theres plenty of debate on that, thanks to the latest Mozilla developments and the direction that Microsofts Internet Explorer is taking. Some people believe that Microsoft won the browser war and thats that; others believe that browsers are irrelevant; still others believe, as I do, that Microsoft won Browser War I but has set itself up to lose Browser War II.
How did we get here? First, Microsoft announced in May that Internet Explorer 6.x would be the last stand-alone version of the Web browser, with all future versions embedded as features in new versions of Windows. Then Microsoft and AOL settled their legal disputes, with AOL agreeing in June to use IE as its integrated browser in future versions of its client software. Recently, The Mozilla Organization separated itself from AOLs Netscape unit and became The Mozilla Foundation.
Microsofts moves are clearly intended to achieve its long-term goal of removing the main browser competitors by removing the browser itself as a competitor to Windows. But Microsoft is running a huge risk. IE, which is already a dinosaur compared with competing browsers, will be quickly entering fossil stage. It will probably be at least three years before a new version of Windows achieves any significant adoption. That means users on Windows platforms who stick with IE will be using, three years from now, a browser that will be eight years out of date. For a point of comparison, if you were using an 8-year-old Web browser right now, you would be using either Netscape 2.0 or IE 2.0—and good luck seeing anything on any Web site. This should provide an opportunity for another browser to seriously challenge.
Could that be Mozilla? Some have speculated that the moves by AOL to standardize on IE and to cut loose The Mozilla Organization mark the beginning of the end of the Mozilla browser. But as someone who has been following the Mozilla browser closely since its inception, I believe the exact opposite is true. Mozilla is finally free to compete. And I believe it will compete.
For a while now, the main forces holding back Mozilla have been Netscape and AOL. Why else would The Mozilla Organization maintain the fiction that Mozilla was just for developers and that those wanting an end-user browser should use Netscape? When The Mozilla Organization broke free and formed The Mozilla Foundation earlier this month, the first order of business was to declare that the Mozilla browser would compete directly with IE among end users.
In a recent statement, Opsware chairman Marc Andreessen said that there is no innovation in browsers. Andreessen was the dominant personality in the browser market when he was at Netscape, but he is flat wrong. There is plenty of innovation in browsers, and, when it comes to innovation, Mozilla is at least two generations ahead of IE. When The Mozilla Foundation releases the modular Firebird browser by the end of the year, users looking for an up-to-date browser will have a very compelling choice.
People will say that it doesnt matter whats better because everyone will just use whats on their computers, which will be IE. But people are forgetting the history of Web browsers. Netscape initially became big because everyone used it at work and then decided to use it at home.
As companies build more new Web applications and Web services, they will be strongly attracted to a state-of-the-art browser that powerfully interacts with the applications and services they are creating. Commercial Web sites, many of which are seeing a resurgence in their business, will also want to leverage new technologies that only up-to-date and innovative browsers support.
Of course, things can change in the future. Ive seen plenty of surprising developments since I started reviewing browsers back when Mosaic was vying with Spyglass (the forebears of Mozilla and IE, respectively). Microsoft has shown that, in strategy, it can turn on a dime, and the company could yet change its IE strategy.
But in this coming Browser War II, Im willing to bet on the fresh and invigorated dragon over the dusty old dinosaur.
Jim Rapoza is at email@example.com.