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Microsoft Browser Drama Continues; Reader Weighs In

After RCPU lauded readers last week for playing down Browser Wars II, we got rather a brush-off e-mail from reader Andy:

"Browsers are not an application -- they are a platform. And no one wants Microsoft to use one monopoly to gain another monopoly. Please go on and talk about something new."

Rather than talking about something new, though, your editor asked Andy what difference it would make if a company created a monopoly for a free product. His answer might be old hat to some of you, but it was educative for me (call it a "teaching moment"; I even drank a beer while reading it), and it might shed some light on the browser issue for others, as well. Said Andy:

"Browsers are now like operating systems in that 'Web applications' are written to be run on a limited set of browsers. The developers cannot afford to test on all browsers, and while there are standards that browsers are written to, it's kind of like the old 'UNIX standards.' Not all UNIX operating systems had the same tool sets, and not all browsers support all the same extensions -- think ActiveX controls as one example, Flash as another, JavaScript extensions as another. That's why enterprises get stuck on one version of IE, and why Firefox didn't take off even faster.

"Microsoft used to play this angle much harder before all the European pressure -- pushing, through Visual Studio tools, technologies that only IE could support. Now, it's becoming less of an issue as the browser standards are broadened considerably to support ever more advanced JavaScript processing, but the underlying issue is still the same. Web application developers have limited time and money to test all the different browsers. So, if you're not one of the 'big market share browsers,' the developers will ignore you.

"And it's not like this is all under the control of an individual developer or even a team of developers. Development today means using a set of development tools, and those tools in turn have dependencies on specific browsers. Try running IE 5 or old Opera or Netscape browsers today. The 'Web apps' are constantly evolving and require more and more sophisticated browsers. That's one of the primary reasons the Web appliances (think 3com's Audrey, etc.) failed.

"Now, everyone likes to preach about 'standards' -- that 'real soon now,' all the Web apps will be written to the limited set of HTML/script standards that are supported equally in 'ALL browsers.' But that will probably not happen. Think of the promise of Java itself -- the old 'write once, run anywhere' has been complicated dramatically by the constant evolution of the Java platform versions. You can't count on the response from all the different Java flavors. So, as a developer, you end up demanding specific versions because that's all you are able to test around."

OK, that makes a lot of sense. It's about development tools and platforms, which do generate revenue, not about the browsers themselves, which only sort of do (given that default-search deals can bring in some cash). Those of you who have always understood that can roll your eyes, but for the rest of us, Andy's e-mail was useful. And we understand what Andy's saying. Opera (for example) doesn't have a chance of gaining market share if developers of Web-based applications don't bother testing to see whether their apps will work with it. (Incidentally, Microsoft partners who do development work or push Microsoft's development platform might not mind IE helping their cause. Just a thought there.)

Actually, that leads us quite well into a story that has emerged this week. Apparently Microsoft's forthcoming Office Web Apps (we'll call it OWA here, although we don't think Microsoft calls it that), supposedly Redmond's online answer to Google Apps, won't "officially" support Google Chrome, Opera, the Windows version of Safari...or even IE 6.

That's not to say that OWA won't work in those browsers; it might, Microsoft is saying, and the software giant also says that it'll expand its officially supported browser options for OWA after it releases the product. Still, though, this is the kind of thing that we hate to see, and we think that it's kind of stupid. This seems like a ploy to strongly encourage users to use recent versions of IE (Firefox, we suppose, was too big to not make the list, and Safari for Mac made it to appease the Mac crowd).

Microsoft is potentially cutting more than half of the browser market, if we believe some metrics, from its list of officially supported browsers. Even with Andy's explanation and argument about Microsoft trying to win developer revenues through IE, how much sense does it make to potentially alienate more than 50 percent of Web users? What kind of a way is that to launch a set of Web-based applications that are supposed to compete on ubiquity and access from anywhere? Surely Microsoft could have somebody test these things for Chrome and Opera, even if those browsers don't represent an enormous portion of the market -- for now.

We say and always have said boo to any company that doesn't try to be as ubiquitous as possible with browser support, and we frankly think that Microsoft can be more ubiquitous with OWA than to not even support its own browser (IE 6). Did Redmond not learn from the Vista mess that it can't necessarily force people to upgrade anymore the way it always did in the past? Beyond all that, your editor surely can't be the only person who uses multiple browsers fairly regularly. Expanding browser support for Web applications just seems like good business.

Let's get back for a minute, though, to Andy's point about browsers being vehicles for selling development platforms and therefore generating revenue. That really only seems to be an issue for companies that have major development platforms, like Microsoft and Google. If anything, Microsoft has used the ubiquity of Windows much more than it has used IE to lock down development revenues. We're still not sure how much damage it does for Microsoft to include IE in Windows.

Are people really going to stop developing for IE (and using Microsoft development platforms) if the browser isn't included in Windows? No -- it's Windows that attracts developers, even on the Web, not IE itself. Would devs pay more attention to browsers with smaller market shares -- and therefore branch out from using Microsoft development tools all the time -- if IE weren't a Windows default? Maybe, and that's probably the strongest argument for decoupling IE from the OS. We get what Andy's saying there.

Still, we're not sure how much sympathy we have for some of the also-rans out there. Look at Google, which -- while not having been declared a monopolist (yet) in search the way Microsoft has been in the OS game -- had a massive Web presence with which to launch its Chrome browser almost a year ago. Yet, Chrome still has low-single-digit market share at this point. In fact, the only browser that's challenging IE in any significant way is Firefox (RCPU's preferred browser), which has no operating system on which to ride and no overwhelmingly popular search engine to support it.

If anything, the success of Firefox weakens the argument that inclusion in Windows is an unfair advantage for IE. Firefox is a product made by a midsize company that ultimately falls under the umbrella of a non-profit organization. Its success, more than anything else, is a testament to innovation, tremendous viral marketing and Mozilla Corp.'s ability to mostly stay one step ahead of its bigger competitor in terms of stability, speed, security and functionality. Firefox competes the old-fashioned way, and we like it. (And, yes, Mozilla whines a lot about IE, too, but we're ignoring that for now.)

What we don't like, though, is the lack of respect for browser standards (or the lack of real standards themselves) that Andy alluded to. Browsers should be commodities -- it really shouldn't matter that much which one someone uses, and Web-based applications should work as well in one as they do in another. We're not just being magnanimous when we say that, either. It makes good business sense for Web applications to work in as many formats as possible and support as many browsers as possible. Cutting out or alienating chunks of users -- even small ones -- isn't a wise move.

Besides, who knows how long IE will rule the browser roost? Chrome could make a run at some point, and Firefox is continuing to gain popularity. Beyond that, Windows itself, while still dominant, doesn't have the absolute chokehold on users that it used to. (Need we mention Vista again?) So, Microsoft, Google and friends -- do try to play well together. You'll all be better off in the end for it.

Since we've spent so much time talking about browsers, here's a little more browser news. Google has a new Chrome beta out, and Microsoft issued a patch yesterday that changed IE's default settings.

What's your take on how browsers generate revenue? Do they make any money for your company? As a partner, does it matter to you which browser a customer uses, and if so, why? Answer these questions or drop any comment you like to [email protected].

Posted by Lee Pender on August 12, 2009


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