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Weblog Entry

And The Web Played On

June 16, 2003

Pleeeeenty has been going through my head the past few days. Consider this a brain dump if you will. I’m probably very wrong in my conjecture and conclusions, but we all need to vent from time to time.

So Microsoft killed Mac IE this weekend, if you were living under a rock. There has been a rather high volume of coverage. I figured it was inevitable as soon as it became apparent that Microsoft’s strategy involved bundling the browser and the OS. Obviously they can’t touch Mac OS, and whether that’s valid reasoning of not, it spelled out IE’s fate on the platform.

Microsoft was initially caught off guard by the web, spent years playing catch–up, and now wants to kill it. The browser in use by the majority is effectively dead, or at least quickly dying. What’s the future, according to Microsoft? Proprietary services. MSN, .Net, and so forth. Conveniently these all will make them far more money than IE ever did.

Fine, good, whatever. Where’s the comfort to be taken in all of this? What good can Mozilla, Opera, or Apple hope to inflict upon the web given their abysmal collective market share? What possible reason do they have to continue any development when Microsoft has so clearly won? Let’s all pack our marbles and go home, because play time is over. The consumer doesn’t care about the browser, and ends up using whatever takes the least effort. IE wins. Microsoft wins. They can do whatever they want now.

Okay, get ahold of yourself. Have we gotten the pessimism out of the way? Good, now let’s try and figure out — constructively — what all this means and what happens next.

Let’s think like each of these companies for a moment, and see what happens:

Opera is a browser company. They make and sell a browser (and variations thereof), no more, no less. This is great news: their biggest competitor has literally decided to stop competing. Opera is in a good spot. Now all they have to do is get someone to start bundling their product with hardware. Hello wireless. A market Microsoft doesn’t own.

Apple is largely a software company. They sell a variety of products, the most important being their operating system which competes directly with Microsoft. John Gruber has a great write-up on what must be happening over in Cupertino right now. Here’s another thought to add on to the heap: we’ve seen how crummy browser–detection scripts lock out fringe browsers — how successful is Microsoft going to be in locking Apple out of their future plans? Their market share may erode awfully quickly if you can’t use the internet on a Mac. They just got forced into a committing to Safari. That’s a ray of light for developers, and we’ll all be sure to thank Apple for it, won’t we? Go tell Dave Hyatt how much you love him.

AOL has more options. They just won the right to license IE free of charge for the rest of the decade. So will IE6 live within AOL’s software until 2011? Not likely. Their long–term strategy must involve Mozilla to some degree. Netscape’s days may be coming to an end, maybe they aren’t, but one thing is abundantly clear — AOL needs to continue developing their own software and break the Microsoft habit. They just collected three quarters of a billion dollars from Redmond: they just used up their Get Out of Jail Free card. The gloves are off.

And lastly, let’s not forget the consumer. I have a collection of sites I visit frequently in my bookmarks. I’m sure every single person with a web browser has a similar collection, regardless of their technological expertise. The publishers of these sites will continue to publish, which means they will continue to require a medium to publish.

People like the web. They like their Google, and Salon, and ESPN. You like developing for it. Because Microsoft has decided they don’t, doesn’t mean Microsoft gets their way. What could they possibly provide that would convince hundreds of thousands of web developers world–wide to a) re–learn, b) re–build, and c) re–develop their entire skillset and toolbox? On any other day we groan about the inherent human nature to stick with what it knows, but today let’s take solace in how many developers have yet to truly embrace web standards. These are the same people Microsoft has to convince.

The web’s not going anywhere.

(This originally started out as a post on wireless technology, if you can believe it. It’s one more angle to consider — the desktop browser may be locked, but mobile devices, set–top boxes and the like are still anyone’s game. The web is far from over, and while things might be at a stand–still for a few years, standards are more important now than ever.)

Reader Comments

June 17, 02h

As far as I am concerned, the sad news is that it means new and exciting web standards like CSS3 and XHTML 2.0 will take longer to filter into mainstream use.

There must be something we (web designers and developers) can do. We cannot let Microsoft turn the web into a soup of proprietary markup and extensions. :::sighs of futility:::

Chris M. Cooper says:
June 17, 03h

I think I share Dave’s optimism, and have ever since I heard that Microsoft was killing IE. Microsoft is stepping away from the web browser market, giving other browser makers a great opportunity to improve their software and their marketshare. The web is the number one reason why computers are purchased today, it’s not going anywhere.

Up till now consumers haven’t cared about the browser because it was a no-brainer. IE was the best browser on the market since version 4, and it was included on PC’s and Macs. Consumers had no reason to care. However, before the release of IE 4, when Netscape was still prominent, consumers were more browser conscious because they needed to be in order to choose the right browser for them. In the near future consumers will care about browsers again because the web is going to continue to grow. At some point it will outgrow IE, and at that point consumers will once again become browser conscious.

Additionally, I hope browsers move into a pay-for market. That would increase the quality of the browsers, and would hopefully cause browser makers to release better versions. Open source browsers could even still be updated through update downloaders that would simply patch the software with the new changes, until the next version came along, at which point the user should pay an upgrade cost. People have to eat. I would be thrilled to see 3 or 4 different browsers for sale on the shelf at my local retail software outlet.

I see this as an opportunity for the web browser market to grow and evolve into something a little more significant than it was before. I guess the most important thing is still web standards. But it seems to me that browser makers other than Microsoft have been more willing to adopt standards anyway. So let Microsoft go their own way with whatever they’re doing. They can’t kill the web unless the rest of the world lets them.

As designers and developers though, we have a responsibility to help educate the average consumer about what the new developments mean. Communication is very important right now in order for this situation to grow into a beneficial one for everyone involved.

Dave S. says:
June 17, 04h

The web is the number one reason why computers are purchased today

Chris, that’s an excellent point, and something I hadn’t stopped to think about enough yet. Problem being though that as long as free alternatives exist people are liable to use them, especially if they’ve already got them. Who will pay for a piece of software they’ve already got, if it works well enough?

Microsoft’s methodical killing of Netscape was because at the time, Netscape as a browser was perceived to be a threat to Windows as an operating system. But we seem to have gone the opposite route, with the Operating System becoming the browser. Whether this is good enough for the general public remains to be seen, but my feeling is that between spending the money on a Windows upgrade and downloading a new browser, the choice should become pretty simple. If consumers are really only interested in the web, then would it be so much of a stretch for them to spend the hour on a 56k vs. shelling out a grand for a new box?

Maybe that’s what we have to convince them. There’s no reason to jump because Microsoft says. Here’s an easier way…

Eric says:
June 17, 06h

This is a little OT, but I have recently re-entered the Mac world after a 5 year hiatus. I’m finding the quality of the Mac browsers to be pretty inferior to PC ones across the board (tried IE, Mozilla, Safari, and Opera). Just the simple fact that I can’t tab through ALL form fields is a big enough reason for me to put down the iBook and go back to my desk.

As far as the comment about for-pay browsers, we should all hope this never happens. This will only slow down progress because people are reluctant to pay for the new versions unless a really compelling reason is there, which will lead to a whole bunch of bloatware and gimmicks detracting from the web experience.

Jess Have says:
June 17, 07h

My biggest concern is that I won’t be able to pay my bills via my mac soon, because the banks will have to choose a new browser to develop for on the Mac. Which one should that be? Safari, Camino, Omniweb? This is also another incentive to go for a PC… IMHO, pessimism is justified.

Chris M. Cooper says:
June 17, 10h

Dave & Eric - I want this to all make sense, so it’s on the really long side. Please forgive me.

1) Netscape nearly died because NN4 was a pile of crap. Microsoft chose to move in the W3C’s direction with IE4 while Netscape tried to implement their own proprietary code because their idea of how DHTML and visual style should work was different. This is the main reason for the fight for standards. If Netscape had followed along, NN4.x would have been a much better browser, and I think it would have stood up to IE quite well. They even had enough time to respond with a better product, but didn’t for how many years? Netscape’s situation is their own fault. This is best illustrated in “Learn Web Design with HTML 4 in a week” by Laura Lemay, published in ‘96 or ‘97 or so. I used to have it anyway, and only gave it away about six months ago. She had to completely separate the Netscape and Microsoft DHTML/CSS conventions into different chapters and explains why.

2) Consumers use free alternatives now because they are not alternatives. They are the norm. But take, for example, DragThing for MacOS. I have not been able to find a free alternative for it anywhere, nor have I found any useful equivalent(sp?) for Windows, free or otherwise, and I’ve looked repeatedly. And the concept of the software is really simple. Point is, I would rather pay 25 bucks for DragThing than use the free alternatives, if there are any. Browsers would be the same. If the major browser makers would charge for their work, then free alternatives would most likely all but disappear and probably wouldn’t be that great. Consumers would bellyache for awhile about paying, but they would get over it.

3) Just like other software, charging for something helps insure that it’s a more complete product (unless it’s Microsoft), so updates don’t have to come as often. Besides, once XML is supported correctly, that takes care of markup languages. Browser updates would be more centered around features such as email, chat, security, privacy, and media handling. A good example is the difference between MusicMatch Jukebox and Winamp. Both are popular, and play the same file formats, but MusicMatch is not free. However, MusicMatch is a much better piece of software although it plays the same file formats. The real value is in the features, like music library handling and CD ripping and recording. I’m happy to pay 20 bucks for these features, rather than fight with Winamp. Additionally, MusicMatch is gaining marketshare over Winamp and Windows Media Player, which are both free.

4) I am somewhat qualified to speak for what consumers want. I managed an office for an ISP for a year, owned a computer store for another year, and have worked for several other computer stores, and I continue to do computer work when requested. The main concern when I sell a computer system is internet and email. Office and finance software comes in second. The average consumer is actually happier running an older operating system, because they believe they are more stable because they’ve been around longer, yet they still prefer new software. The main reason that consumers don’t pay much attention to browsers is that they aren’t targeted for communication. Designers talk their tails off about them, but very little of this reaches the average user. I’ve convinced several friends to switch to Opera or Mozilla simply by installing the software on their systems and showing them the benefits. It’s all a matter of communication. Even if browsers don’t enter the for-pay market, communication is most important. But communication costs money, so how does communication get payed for if the product being communicated about is free? It’s a bit of a paradox, but one the must be resolved. Personally, I’m in favor of paying for a browser if it’s a good piece of software.

I’m getting off the soapbox now, my legs are tired. Sorry this is so ridiculously long. I just hope my thoughts sound well thought-out. I wrote all this on paper before typing it so I could organize it all. I’m a geek that way.

Chris M. Cooper says:
June 18, 02h

Dave - I look at free alternatives just as much as the next guy… I’m a design student afterall, and art school doesn’t leave us a whole lot of cash left over to spend on software. I must have looked at 20 different media players before finally settling on buying MusicMatch. I’m a bit anal retentive, you see, and my music library is meticulously tagged and organized by artist, album and track number. Winamp just wouldn’t do this for me. JetAudio came close, but it’s library system is kinda wacky. Anyway, I’m rambling.

Whatever happens with this whole situation, I think that what it comes down to is that Microsoft has jumped out of the standalone browser market and is letting everyone else have it. It will only be a matter of time before IE starts to slide off your user agent charts.

Michael says:
June 18, 10h

You have many very good points there. My pessimism is on the wane.

We always think of desktop PCs as the means of accessing the Web, don’t we? But maybe not. The point about phones is particularly good. Microsoft are nowhere there.

Still …

STILL wondering how those mobile phone operators can recoup the 22.54 billion they splurged on those whizzy video phone licences? Well wonder no longer … the answer is porn

Source: Connected Comment. In print - not yet made it to the WWW, but shortly here I guess.

Be selling it in Bhutan next, I guess. Maybe that’s grounds for pessimism, too

Dave S. says:
June 18, 11h

Chris, good points, but I’m exactly the opposite of you. I’m happy with the features I get in WinAmp, so I see no reason to spend money on a media player. And even if I didn’t like WinAmp, I’d look at the free alternatives before considering spending the cash. It’s my kind of mindset that large companies view as parasitic, no doubt, but it’s also why I slap a Share-Alike CC license on almost everything I create. If you’re treating your work as a labour of love, I think the quality is going to be far higher than if you’re treating it as a job.

Eric says:
June 19, 12h

Interestingly enough, I’m a strong advocate for free software but I am a registered user of MusicMatch. Why? One button record. That’s it. I detest it for anything but ripping, but that feature was worth the $20 or whatever it was 3 years ago. I think this style applies to most consumers. Give them a reason to pay, and they will. Don’t, and they won’t. Opera has given people very little reason to pay. Despite being commercial, they have had similar, often worse, standards compliance (especially scripting) than the free browsers, so what does the $40 get me? The point here is that pay!=quality. I like Mozilla, but its not my default browser. Why? Again, one feature, and that is the Yahoo toolbar. Considering that I spend time on 3-4 different computers throughout the day, I want my bookmarks to be sync’d. That’s it, if this was on Mozilla, I’d switch. These features I mention may have no value to anyone else, but most people find a unique feature that they like about software and stick with it until a more compelling feature appears elsewhere.

How does this apply to browsers? Well, the core function of a browser is to be the same as all the others, not different. The doodads and such are nice, but are very easily copied. Popup blocking, as an example, is standard now through the browser or plugins. I believe strongly that the web browser market will remain a free (though subsidized via Apple, AOL, maybe MS) one.