Web Browser Market in Crisis Mode

After I read a post about Firefox 2.0b2 by my friend Geof Harries over on Yukonbiz.com, I got to thinking about how much of a state of crisis the web browser marketplace is in.

I commented on his post how I recalled the good old days when Netscape was testing beta versions of its revolutionary Navigator browser. Now those were exciting times. And while, yes, a new Firefox version is interesting, it’s also just as scary. Firefox is just another browser in a crowded marketplace.

You’ve also got Flock, Safari, Opera, OmniWeb, the new hoax browzar (don’t go there!), and the aging behemoth Internet Explorer. And those are just the ones I’m aware of. There are all sorts of iterations of Firefox’s open source engine, and Safari’s open source WebKit. Zoiks!

I don’t mind all this competition, but the problem is that each of these browsers looks, acts, feels, and interacts with web content differently, creating all variety of experiences for users.

I mean, just today I tried out Safari, Firefox, and Flock on a set of
web sites and my experiences were different in each one. First,
the browsers behaved and organized their interfaces differently. Then
there were subtle and, in some cases, major differences in the way the
browsers each rendered and presented information from web sites.

For example, the blogging interface on TypePad is much more feature-rich for Firefox users than it is for Safari users. And twice this week I’ve had technical support staff suggest that I might remedy a problem I’m having by “trying a different web browser”.

Back in the 90s, the last great browser war took place between Netscape
Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Like the nation-states of
World War II, the battle lines were clearly drawn.

These days its more
like guerrilla warfare. There are multiple versions of multiple
different browswers in use and, unfortunately, each offers its own form
of web user experience, both within its own interface and in regards to
web sites and applications.

Average users can’t be expected to jump around between different pieces of software to engage with the web effectively. They’ll just pick a browser and stick with it. Sites that don’t work, they’ll ignore. And if enough sites stop working, they’ll grow frustrated and disenchanted with the web.

Considering the wide assortment of open sources projects, no doubt this is the way the web experience will continue to evolve. But is it healthy? Can we expect the web to splinter into “browser camps” of information? Are the days of the “whole web” over? And what impact will this have on widespread use of the web over time?

And here’s the big question: is it all moot with the imminent release of Windows Vista and its new version of Internet Explorer?

Ah, lofty questions indeed for 6am.

3 thoughts on “Web Browser Market in Crisis Mode

  1. Between Flock, Firefox and Camino, the experiences are nearly the same because they all use the same rendering engine. There’s small differences, but for the most part they’re the consistent.

    Continue with Safari, Ominweb and Shira, all which use the Webkit engine. The new beta of Omniweb has been upgraded to match the other 2 versions, so it’s quite similar as well.

    And then there is IE Windows (IE Mac is irrelevant in my view) which has its own engine.

    The upcoming IE 7 is actually quite good when it comes to CSS support, especially compared to the dinosaur that is IE 6 Win.

    I feel I can speak for most developers when I say that IE 7 is a breath of fresh air compared to its older sibling – it makes it a lot easier to write cross-browser code – although of course Microsoft still has a lot of proprietary hooks inside of the software.

    So in actuality, the browser market isn’t all that bad. It sure is better now than it was 5 years ago, with good support for web standards, RSS and a few other niceties.

    I do agree with your point about not expecting users to jump around between different pieces of software to engage with the web effectively. Very true.

    But when my 95-year old grandfather downloads and uses Firefox himself, you know things are on the up and up. He’ll stick with Firefox and that’s okay by me!

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  3. Aaaactually, I was more referring to the “total browser” experience.

    Like, some aspects of TypePad don’t work in Safari, so I went over to Firefox to do it, imported my bookmarks, but Firefox can’t access my Mac OS keychain items and I couldn’t remember my password, but then I remembered I’d once put my password into Flock (which, despite being Mozilla, doesn’t share with Firefox, go figure) so I went over there, but the built-in Flock blogging interface didn’t support what I wanted to do in TypePad, either, so I imported my bookmarks from Safari again, but Flock doesn’t understand hierarchical bookmark folders which I didn’t notice at first so I thought the import has failed… and on and on.

    In short: each browser environment behaves differently in regards to bookmarks, passwords, tabs interfaces.

    I remember when just the fact that IE termed “Bookmarks” as “Favourites”, even though they were managed identically, that caused a usability uproar. Now moving from browser to browser requires a completely new learning curve in terms of functions and experience.

    So, despite the fact that many of the rendering engines are the same, the user experience in each case is remarkably different.

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