Browser War…(woah, woah, woah) What is it Good For?

17 Jan

Originally posted 18 November 2009 @ Foviance.com

The big news this week, is the event at Google headquarters to demonstrate their much hyped operating system on Thursday, which promises to be the first major confrontation in the new browser war which was triggered by the release of Google Chrome earlier this year.

The relationship between the major players in the online world has always been described in overtly bellicose terms, but in the continuing fight for online supremacy, the battle ground has shifted from the traditional Battle of the Browser, to a fully-fledged global World Wide Web War. Google is making a bold move in challenging Microsoft’s OS dominance, but the old war horse still has some fight left, as evidenced by Microsoft moving in on Google’s search dominance with Bing and their deal with Yahoo.

The interweb is a moveable feast and the fight for innovation and market share is changing the way we think about computers and the Cloud. The lines between hardware and software, platforms and applications, browsers and OS are becoming less distinct, largely thanks to the efforts of the major players – Microsoft, Google and Apple – to trump each other. This time around, however, it appears the ultimate goal is not simply to have the most-downloaded browser, but to create a whole new paradigm for how we use the internet.

Like all software, the trick to increasing your user base is to build a good product – if it’s usable then people will use it. Duh. Love them or loathe them, MS make a perfectly good browser; whether it can be considered “the best” depends on your perspective (or your loyalty). But at the end of the day when it comes to browsers the rules of engagement have changed. Earlier this year the European Commission sent a Statement of Objections to Microsoft, outlining their belief that “Microsoft’s tying of its web browser Internet Explorer to its dominant client PC operating system Windows infringes the EC Treaty rules on abuse of a dominant position” in an attempt to get IE unbundled from Windows or force Microsoft to bundle other browsers with their OS. Notably, Windows 7 now ships in Europe without IE, which needs to be downloaded separately. The EU, it seems, is a PC…they talked and Microsoft listened. Time will tell what impact, if any, this has on European usage stats for IE.

As much as I deplore any anti-competitive behaviour and abuse of power by market heavy-weights, I have to wonder whether this move was even necessary. I’ve had a version of IE on practically every computer I’ve ever owned but I’ve rarely used it, as in my opinion it’s not a particularly good browser: it’s bloated, doesn’t conform to open standards, and discourages stable customisation. Despite claims to the contrary, Microsoft are not renowned for rapid response to user complaints about their products.  Of course, this could be said of any competitive company, but it’s when things get anti-competitive that it becomes problematic. There’s an old adage: “You reap what you sow”, and it’s interesting to see IE losing market share to an upstart like Google who built their empire with free software, and the phoenix-like Firefox, the vengeful son of Netscape Navigator, a product Microsoft arguably helped to destroy.

I, for one, am greatly anticipating Thursday’s announcement. Professionally, it heralds a significant shift in the landscape of user experience and human-computer interaction. Personally, I love a gimmick and am always an early-adopter of new software particularly when it’s free. I’ve been using Chrome since it first came out and I love it, not simply because it’s gimmicky but because it’s a great browser. It was developed in direct response to well-known complaints about deficiencies in existing browsers. It’s fast, customisable, responsive and solid. Google clearly want people to use their products so they’re investing a lot of energy (and presumably money) in understanding what users want. If the uptake of Chrome, the simplicity of Gmail, and the impressions of WAVE are anything to go by, the Google OS promises to be a cracker.

Of course, operating systems are a completely different beast to browsers or search engines. The definition of “best” is subjective to say the least and as developers have gradually come to realise the importance of a good customer experience, a “winner takes all” mentality diverts attention away from what should be the real goal of any software vendor: making a better product. Sure, you can actively kill your competitors’ product through monopolies or prohibitive patent licence fees or frivolous law suits, but why not put all that energy and money into your own product and kill them by making it better than theirs? That way, in the words of those great peace-makers, Hot Chocolate: “Everyone’s a winner, baby…that’s the truth.”

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