Browsers Still Matter

The main path to a different future lies in the direction of alternative browsers.

Like most businesses, software companies seek to do whats in their best interest, and this is certainly true of Microsoft.

Last month, Microsoft displayed this kind of strategic thinking when it settled its long-standing Web browser dispute with AOL Time Warner through a $750 million payoff.

With this move, Microsoft neutralized its main commercial competition in the browser market, namely the Netscape browser, and ensured its own browsers spot in the AOL client. Ironically, Microsoft achieved this dominance for Internet Explorer at a time when it has let its browser stagnate to the point where it is probably the least-capable browser on the market today.

A quick look through eWEEK Labs reviews of the browsers on the market shows a great deal of innovation and useful features in open-source browsers such as Mozilla and commercial products such as the Opera browser. In comparison, IE 6 has basically the same code base as IE 5, which was released in 1999.

When the browser wars began, Microsoft innovated in IE so that by Version 4.0, IE was a better browser than Netscapes. However, market dominance having been attained, Microsoft seems to have lost interest in innovating.

What explains Microsofts behavior? Its likely the company simply doesnt view the browser as a stand-alone application as strategic, and, therefore, browser enhancements are a low priority. Its no secret Microsoft has seen the Web browser as a threat to its desktop dominance, and company officials have consistently said they believe many browser functions should be integrated into the desktop operating system and applications. The less browsers improve as an application, the easier the argument that they should become irrelevant as stand-alone products.

This point of view was expressed when Microsoft announced recently that IE 6.x will be the last stand-alone version of the browser and that in the future it will simply be an integrated feature of the operating system. This fits with Microsofts vision that the Web is simply a delivery medium for content into Microsoft applications and features.

We think this should not be the only choice for corporate IT. This type of future for the Web could become very limiting and proprietary, making it hard for businesses to create standards-based content that is easily distributed across platforms. And given Microsofts track record when it has market dominance, its a reasonable concern that Web technology could stagnate.

Right now, the main path to a different future lies in the direction of alternative browsers, which tend to have excellent standards support and run identically across multiple operating systems. Whats more, they are technically superior to IE. Companies may want to give them more thought. Interest in competing products could spur Microsoft to innovate in browser technology. Its happened before.

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