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The Browser Wars

Posted in Uncategorized by Pankaj Gudimella on March 28, 2009

Cloud computing has one major ingredient which is vital to its success – the browser. Below is a primer on the four major players from FT.

The internet has seen the creation of many browsers in the course of its short existence, but the main story has only four protagonists: Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome.

In terms of popular usage, Netscape Navigator was the first. Everyone used Navigator – in part because there weren’t any serious alternatives – and it worked fine. Then came Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE), which was integrated into the company’s dominant Windows operating system, driving its growth. By 1998, IE had overtaken Netscape in terms of usage.

An antitrust suit was filed against Microsoft, but by then it was too late. IE controlled over 90 per cent market share and, despite the legal wrangling, to this day it is still shipped as the default browser on most of the world’s PCs. Netscape was bought by AOL, and after much dithering was taken out of development in 2007.

The story would end there but for the “open-source” community. Open-source software was (and to an extent still is) the scourge of Microsoft. Chief executive Steve Ballmer once referred to the Linux open-source operating system as a “cancer”. Software like this is constantly improved by a community of software developers who work on the project for little or nothing. The fruits of their labour are usually distributed free. In 1998, Netscape turned the code of Navigator into an open-source project called Mozilla – and out of that grew Firefox.

Firefox has taken 20 per cent of IE’s market share, and is still growing. Many of its features – such as tabbed browsing and accessibility settings – were available earlier on other products, such as the browser Opera, but thanks to word-of-mouth, good marketing and Firefox’s appeal to more technically literate users, it has grown to be IE’s biggest challenger. And because it is open-source, third-party developers can extend Firefox’s capabilities by building new applications, making it an even more powerful tool.

The browser market was looking like a two-horse race between IE and Firefox, with an honourable mention for the Mac-based Safari, until Google launched Chrome in 2008.

Chrome still has only about 1 per cent of the browser share but that will grow. With Lars Bak’s V8 engine, Chrome is incredibly quick. The browser uses a lot of open-source code and open standards, but has also introduced some important innovations, such as its use of independent tabs. This sounds dull, but it’s critical. Here’s why: normally, running several web-based applications through the browser can lead to a crash. And when one browser tab crashes, the whole program needs to be restarted, losing any work or activity going on in other tabs.

Chrome runs in a way that means any browser crash is limited to just that tab, so that if you are composing an e-mail in one screen, and a video crashes in another, the e-mail you are writing is not affected. You can close the crashed tab and continue working. Making the browser operate in this way –like the desktop – is crucial for the future of web applications.

Of course, the speed at which Chrome functions is also vital. For web-based applications to be a success, they need to respond quickly, or users will become frustrated. Speed, stability, security – these are all critical areas for the future of everything we do online. And the browser is the gateway.

With the launch of Chrome, many tests were made by tech enthusiasts to determine which browser is the best performance wise. Below is an interesting post from Dave Winer:

In the last few days there’s been a discussion in the blogosphere as to the future of browsers, and the continued charm of Firefox, or whether there’s any serious movement to Chrome. My original piece basically said that no matter how attractive Chrome might be, I can’t switch because so much of what I do depends on plugins that are only available in Firefox.

But part of the the discussion centered around whether or not Firefox is slow relative to the other browsers. David Naylor posted a series of tests that show that, if anything, it’s getting more efficient. His numbers are impressive. Less than half a second to launch. I’ve never measured the performance of Firefox or any other browser, and I don’t plan to. But when people talk about the speed of a browser, I don’t think of how quickly it launches or even how fast it renders a page right after it launches.

Here’s what I do care about — how slow it gets after it has been running for a number of hours with a full complement of tabs. That’s the A-B comparison that we should be looking at. I think that’s the subjective measure people use to say whether a browser is fast or slow. Ideally you only launch a browser once every time your machine boots. But how often do you have to quit the browser because it has become so bogged down and is using up so much of the machine’s resources? I wonder if most users know that you can make the browser faster by quitting and relaunching?

It’s also possible that people who use Chrome fit a different profile and don’t load it up with a lot of tabs, or the UI of Chrome discourages lots of tabs — I don’t know since I have only tried Chrome, I have not used it as my daily browser.

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