Monday, September 13, 2010

Browser war for good

There's quite much excitement for the coming beta version of Internet Explorer 9, due to be shown on the Beauty of the Web event in San Francisco.

IE and all other browser are all touted as the quickest, the most powerful, the nicest, the first in many areas of the browsing experience: hardware acceleration (IE9 here, FireFox here, Chrome here), javascript speed (IE9's figures here, FireFox's new engine here, Chrome's celebrations here), standard compliance (IE9 here).
IE9 is going to be a major release that puts Microsoft's browser on track to follow existing web standards; what's more important, it looks like Microsoft has abandoned the 'I'm the standards' position that made IE win the first browser war against Netscape, and was making it lose the second one.
Trying to maintain that position any longer would have made the world progressively shift to other browsers, as in fact is happening in the past few years.

Standard compliance is not going to make quick shifts in browser share: I, as a user, am not using Chrome for writing this post because it is more standard compliant than IE8, I'm using it just because it's quicker and cleaner. If IE9 is as quick and clean as Chrome I think I'll make it again my default browser.
It's when I wear my web developer hat that I feel the pain of having to test what I write on different browsers. And finding that most of the hacks are for one browser clearly explains why the developers/editors community cannot be happy with that browser. This sentiment can erode market share, because developers and editors do have some weight in directing users' choice.
During the first browser war standard compliance was not a must: competition was essentially between two competitors on one platform (Windows) based on features. This competition made available some rich features that are the ground for today's web applications: javascript, innerHTML, xmlHttpRequest... There was no space for standards, no time to wait for their definition before shipping new features.

Well, the first browser war was decided by features (probably an important role was played by the now much hated ActiveX technology) and by the inclusion in Windows so that anybody purchasing a windows box also had installed a copy of Internet Explorer.

If the first browser war had a clear winner, the 'peace' time that came after had a clear loser: the user. Subsequent versions of IE were more aimed to stabilize the codebase than to ship new features. Other minor browsers grew, also due to the fact that IE ceased support for Mac, and healthy web standard got developed, but very few new features got widespread.

Developers and editors could not make use of new features of browsers that accounted for small fractions of audience, if no alternatives were available in IE. Let's take for example Svg: a promising language, made soon available in IE through a plugin from Adobe, bur never supported with energy by Microsoft or Adobe. The result is that it could not be adopted as a widespread technology for producing rich content. If one had to deliver rich interactive content the only option was Flash. Now, with native support from IE9 (and from all the other major browsers, of course, but IE makes the difference) Svg can become a widely used platform to deliver rich content. The same can be said of Html5 and Css3. Unless support from IE is provided, you cannot adopt a new technology to give the user vital parts of the intended experience, or you lose most part of your target audience.

From the features IE9 is going to deliver, it looks like most IE users on Vista and Windows 7 are going to make the switch very soon after IE9's release to web. XP users should instead make the switch to another browser (IE8 is still good for the current web, but I bet new content will soon make it appear outdated).

With many different platforms out there (take into account also smartphones) a plurality of browser vendor is there to stay, and with Microsoft change in attitude they are all going to compete on standard compliance, and not against each other. That plurality will keep browser war going on. Whatever happens to browser market shares, I bet this time the winner is going to be the web.