Case #1 : Firefox vs IE

Firefox is a browser that has gained an incredible popularity in the last years and managed to convert an impressive number of Internet Explorer users. According to the latest figures available, Firefox’s market share is currently of 22% world-wide and not less than 35% in Europe. Few people would have thought it would get that popular someday and certainly not Microsoft who probably ignored the threat for way too long. Figures don’t lie and the popularity of the Mozilla’s web browser certainly has a lot to do with the fact that Microsoft rested on one’s laurels for so many years with Internet Explorer 6. It ignored the call from people for tabbed browsing and better compliance with standards: IE reacted in the last couple of years but once someone has switched, it is quite difficult to make him come back.

One major reason of Firefox’ perceived popularity is also thanks to the huge number of fanboys who relentlessly promoted the browsers in forums, wore its colors as their web-signature and so on. Mozilla even created a website, SpreadFirefox, to organize and optimize the marketing efforts of its loyal users. More than once, this pressure felt as annoying as overwhelming, unavoidable and forced, with even some websites going as far asrefusing to leave Internet Explorer’s users to enter or showing messages urging them to switch for their own good and security: technology is just technology and shouldn’t in my opinion inspire such holy wars and on such a scale. I confess currently being a Firefox user, but I resisted a very long time and remained on IE due to that pressure I refused to submit to, and if I ultimately switched, it is certainly not thanks to that. However, this campaign worked very well on a lot of users who gave in to the hype and switched.

Ironically, a lot of users now running Firefox did not necessarily made the decision to switch, but someone (or more accurately something) else made the choice for them. I am obviously referring to the fact that Firefox was bundled with a lot of products, including Google’s for a long time. I hate this way of distributing applications since it is most of the time unwanted and end up polluting people’s computer with completely unsolicited software which adds up and ultimately slows the computer down, but I have to admit it was quite efficient in Firefox’ case.

Last, Firefox was for a long time the equivalent of David, from “David & Goliath”… the open-source product from a public benefit organization, versus Microsoft, the software giant, and the 95% of market share of its browser at that time and was thought to be unbeatable. It turns out that many people do not like or trust large organizations who make a lot of money and the kind guys doing it for the passion and for the well-being of everyone tend to look nicer to a lot of people: this “counterculture” side of the deal also helped Firefox increasing its market share.

Firefox however failed to get into enterprises as successfully, and by far. The product is way too unmanageable for large deployments and administration, especially compared to Internet Explorer. The official package doesn’t come with support for global administration through Group Policy and is incompatible with ActiveX components, who are used on many intranets. Getting into corporate networks is a great way to gain further recognition and market share, and Mozilla has a lot of work to do for IT admins to be ready to install it on thousands of machines at once. As a result, Internet Explorer still is the ruler in the enterprises running a Windows-based network.

I think the struggle between Firefox and Internet Explorer will bring about a lot of improvements in the Windows browsers. Microsoft failed to innovate quickly enough after IE6, which just was a “good-enough” browser instead of being an excellent one and the wake-up call was difficult. On the other hand, Firefox itself didn’t revolution anything in the web browsing since making tabs popular and aiming to have a strong standard compliance. Its overall speed, especially launch time got worse with newer versions and Microsoft attacked where it hurts with IE8 which really feels much faster to open than its previous versions, but most importantly Firefox. Firefox has focused too much on browsing speed and the speed of its JavaScript engines rather than speeding up the start up time of its browser, which is in my opinion at least as important than having a fast browsing engine, especially considering browsing is most of the time bottlenecked by relatively slow internet connections (in comparison of CPU, Memory, and disk throughput). In the end, competition leads to innovation and the innovation is even greater when two competitors each have a relatively large market share they could fight each other for.

Case #2 Google Chrome vs Firefox

Google is a new challenger in the browser world and it is a bit too early to see how it will grow. The BetaNews article I was talking about was putting a lot of emphasis on the fact that Chrome could be a major threat for Firefox and overwhelm it rather quickly, especially considering both are free browsers, use a quite similar business-model and that Google was one of the biggest revenues sources for Firefox. I personally don’t think Chrome is a really dangerous threat to Firefox as it is currently stands. If anything, it is Opera who has the biggest reasons to worry about it, as it could quickly take its place as the “third-choice” web-browser. While promising, Chrome still lacks a lot of features, like strong add-ons support from the community, one of the major advantage of Firefox. Firefox’s users are used to their add-ons/extensions and most of them are not really ready to leave without them, no matter what the destination browser is. Chrome has to offer something new or different, which it currently doesn’t. It is just yet another browser, and a particularly young and immature one for now, which is rarely a good thing for software.

Google’s huge number of visits on all its websites (the main search engine, GMail, Google Maps, etc) is undoubtly one of its biggest advantage in the browser wars: potentially, all Google would have to do is to add a link on its services’ front page to immediately reach millions of users. That said, people are increasingly becoming wary of Google: its huge dominance of the search engines market means it has an incredible power and many fear how this power could be used, especially since their famous “Don’t be evil” motto failed to be respected more than once in the process. It is particularly true for Chrome as the browser’s original EULA claimed full legal rights over anything submitted using their software. Not the best way to start and make people trust your brand-new product…

Along this line, it seems pretty clear that Google now almost dominates the online market in a lot of applications: its search engine has the tremendous power to shape the Web and Google has clearly noticed that they lagged behind on the client-side. The question is, do we want to give them as much power client-side than they already have server-side? My personal opinion is that it simply wouldn’t be the wisest thing to do…

Conclusion

In the end, I think that Firefox still has a big part to play in the browser market and isn’t on the verge of losing to Chrome. Switching browsers, when the decision is made by the individual and not by some kind of bundling mechanism, is usually the result of a quite mature reflexion. Firefox’s add-on system is really what makes the users addicted to this product, even though it ironically does not implement itself, and, in its naked form, isn’t really more feature-packed than Internet Explorer. Firefox’s development has been getting a bit sloppy in the next months, especially since V3 which is noticeably slower to launch than the previous versions. Parallelly, IE8’s development team put a lot of efforts in making the new version of the Microsoft browser significantly faster, maybe not in terms of JavaScript execution but in terms of overall launch time and responsiveness. While a fast JavaScript engine is definitely something very pleasing to have, especially nowadays when Web 2.0 application and AJAX-enabled sites are becoming so prominent, it isn’t what the users notice the most: users are used to wait for web pages so a lot of them aren’t going to notice that some part of the website runs 500ms faster on a browser than another, but will however able to measure quite clearly how long a browser takes to start, to open an new tab, and so on.

IE is getting better, and its newer versions do not take 4 years anymore to arrive and Firefox should realize that in order to continue gaining market-share as steadily it did in the last years. However, IE will have a very hard time to make the users who switched to Firefox come back to IE, even though a lot of reasons for moving to Firefox in the first place back in the days of IE6 aren’t really valid anymore. Add-ons issue, notwithstanding, switching back to the browser they were using 5 years ago would simply feel going backwards for a lot of users, even if the product changed significantly.

I am personally satisfied to see that Firefox’ success finally worried Microsoft and decided to make its best to improve their browser. Viewing web pages is one of the most important activities for computer users nowadays and I am glad they decided to make big improvements to an important product and improved their support on Web-Standards. I think that having the market share less unilateral is a saner situation than having any of the mentioned browser owing 95% of the market: let’s hope that this time, the browsers war’s outcome won’t be almost a decade of stalled development, or all of this would have served no purpose at all…