Thursday, December 23, 2010

Microsoft fights back in the browser wars


There was a day, years ago, when Internet Explorer 6 was the latest thing, a high-performance browser with useful features. But those days ended, and Microsoft got saddled with the reputation as a browser laggard that IE7 and IE8 didn't help.

In 2010, though, a long effort to reactivate the company's browser work bore fruit in IE9. It's only a beta version so far, but already it's dramatically shifted the browser market.

IE9 supports all manner of Web standards, including a host of HTML5 features such as built-in video, CSS3 for advanced formatting, professional typography, and SVG for smoothly resizable graphical elements. It dramatically speeds up the execution of Web-based JavaScript programs. It helped awaken browser rivals for one top priority today, hardware acceleration. The software itself is accompanied by an industry push in which Microsoft is educating Web developers and contributing to standards development.

It'll take a long time still before Web developers are convinced Microsoft is serious about browsers again, and likely an even longer time before those using laggardly IE6 finally upgrade, but it's clear that Microsoft really is helping pave the way for a new browser future in which Web sites and Web applications become more fluid, interactive, polished, and powerful.

IE9 comes just in the nick of time for Microsoft. For years, its top browser rival has been Firefox, but Google's Chrome has ushered in an era of fierce browser competition. Google knows a thing or two about the Web, has a major agenda of Web applications to pursue, and has a big enough Web presence that it can make new technologies relevant--SPDY for faster browsing being one example--by building them into its browser and Web site.

Chrome passed Apple's Safari for third place in the rankings of browser usage early in 2010, and its growth carried to nearly 10 percent of usage by November. It's overcome at least the initial challenges of appealing to more than just technophiles and early adopters.

A new phase of Google browser ambition has just begun, too: the arrival of the Chrome Web Store to promote Web-based applications and of Chrome OS, though the latter is only in an unfinished developer-preview version because of a delay.

The Chrome Web Store offers a way for people to find and buy Web apps. Some of those are glorified bookmarks for existing Web sites, but others link to applications that function differently from the regular Web sites, and others are Chrome-specific extensions. The store works both on regular Chrome and on Chrome OS.

Chrome OS is much more of a departure from existing technology than just a browser. Google is only offering it built into hardware--its own bland Cr-48 reference design to start, but laptops from Samsung and Acer by mid-2011. Google has done well with Android, but it's not yet clear how well Chrome OS will fare with consumers and businesses.

Chrome's growth has kept Firefox's percentage of browser usage flat for most of 2010. Mozilla has ambitious plans for Firefox 4, including many new features and performance improvements. However, Mozilla was unable meet a 2010 deadline, and the Firefox 4 release has slipped into 2011.

Apple's Safari has steadily increased in usage share, though there are few signs the Windows version is catching on. Safari has been the principle sponsor of the open-source WebKit project on which it and Chrome are based, but Google is steadily increasing its presence.
A notable feature for Safari 5, extensions that can customize the browser's behavior, arrived in July. Opera, the fifth-ranked browser maker, is building them into Opera 11, the upcoming version, matching Chrome and Mozilla's upcoming Jetpack.

Opera's strongest point of competition is its presence on mobile phones, for which it has the lighter-weight Mini version and the full-featured Opera Mobile. Its mobile browsing cart is hitched to the Nokia era of smartphones, but that's still a major market, and Opera now has a notable 150 million users and counting.

It's also regearing for the new era, first with Opera Mini for the iPhone and Android and then with a beta version of Opera Mobile for Android. Mozilla, too, has a beta of Firefox for Android. It'll be tough to convince iOS and Android device users to move beyond their built-in browsers, but the software shows at least some measure of the vibrant browser competition that exists on personal computers is coming to the mobile market as well.

Adobe Systems, maker of the widely used Flash Player browser plug-in, had a hard year but one that ended on a rosier note. Apple showed no signs of budging on its ban of Flash from iOS devices directly, but it did relent on blocking an Adobe tool to convert Flash apps to native apps. And through the very public fight between the two companies, Adobe and Google forged an alliance that has resulted in Flash support and promotion within Android.

The browser market combines competition among makers with cooperation as they seek to jointly advance what can be done on the Web. HTML5 standardization has triggered emotional clashes among different groups involved as the specification moves more under the control of corporate powers.

Another Web challenge is in the mobile market, where native software can offer better interfaces and faster performance than Web apps. But it's clear that the Web, and the tools for using it, are thriving.

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