Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Browser Wars Circa 2009

If you have any understanding of computer technology and you haven't been in a coma for the past twelve years, then you already know that there has been a very significant trend in software application development from windows based applications to web applications.

The drivers for this trend aren't very hard to comprehend. A traditional windows application incurs a lot more development costs in terms of installation and testing on the various different types of client computers (i.e. PCs) than the same app delivered as HTML over the web. While there have been impressive advancements in reducing windows application testing and deployment over the years, there is still a higher TCO for windows apps than for web apps.

Not that web apps will completely take over windows apps. Some areas, such as graphics manipulation, VoIP, and video capture, will most probably always be in the province of windows apps. At a minimum, you will always need a web browser running on the client machine as a windows app in order to get access to the web apps. Without the web browser, the web apps are useless.

This is nothing new to the major technology vendors. As competitors over gaining IT market share, they have known this for quite some time. Own the web browser and you own the web. That is why Microsoft aggressively went after Netscape back in the mid 90s. Netscape was the corporation that formed around the original inventors of the web browser. This competition between Netscape and Microsoft eventually led to Netscape being acquired by AOL in 1998. Round one of the browser wars goes to Microsoft.

But the founders of Netscape were not willing to give up so easily. Even as the company was being sold, they created a non-profit foundation devoted to the proposition that innovation on the Internet would thrive only if there was available a web browser that was not so directly controlled by any single vendor. This Mozilla Foundation eventually spun off a for profit subsidiary in order to gain the revenue needed to continue to provide a quality web browser.

This "phoenix from the ashes" strategy worked well. While continued development of Microsoft's web browser languished, the Mozilla browser (called Firefox) continued to enhance and innovate on the web browsing experience. Mozilla was able to do this because they used the open source model to keep their development costs low. Recently, there has been much speculation about the mass migration of web browsing from Microsoft's Internet Explorer web browser to Firefox. Round two of the browser wars goes to Mozilla.

What about the other players in this war? Well, Apple has always had a place on the battlefield with their Safari browser. They don't have much in the way of market share, however. There's a few other minor players but their low market share numbers make it such that they are really not worth mentioning here. What is newsworthy is when Google announced their entry into this war with their web browser named Chrome. For one thing, a lot of the revenue for Mozilla comes from Google. The concern is that revenue stream will dry up now that Google and Mozilla are direct competitors.

Google Chrome currently doesn't have a lot of market share yet so why the concern about Chrome? Google is a big company with deep pockets. This coup has been tried before by another big company with deep pockets, Microsoft. Google is ratcheting up their marketing machine over Chrome.

There are also some noticeable difference between what Google has done with Chrome and what Microsoft did with Internet Explorer. The biggest difference is that Chrome is based on open source.

Recently, the NY Times published a story on the latest turn of events in the web browser wars. The war is very lukewarm now. Not a hot war at all. Google will continue to fund Mozilla, at least until 2011. Google's funding accounts for over three fourths of Mozilla's revenues. Mozilla recently moved their physical office away from the main Google campus.

Why do you care? If you are a software vendor or IT shop that makes and publishes web applications, then you want to make sure your applications run smoothly in the most popular web browsers. If your web applications suddenly stop working, then you have a serious problem.

That is why industry watchers keep up with the web browser wars. They don't want to be caught by surprise by the threat of a web browser upgrade or patch that was purposely designed to destroy the competition.

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