It seems that with every week, someone releases a browser based on Mozilla. This is good. Mozilla continues to cause a discernable buzz. The question remains, is it a buzz like an annoying mosquito who won’t go away in an Internet Explorer dominated world OR is the tasty cultural buzz that precedes a technological shift?
I’m not an active user of Mozilla. On the PC I’m still mostly using IE6 and on the Mac, I’m using whatever is the most recent version of IE. In retrospect, the only significant recent annoyance I’ve had with IE is on the PC – something is screwed up with the View Source command and it appears to be caused by a corrupted cache.
Now, there are two points here. First, for being a very active user of IE, having one relatively small bug turn up in the past year is pretty good news for the IE code base. The bad news is that I’m a big fan of the View Source command, I’m lazy, and I know there are other browsers out there.
Now, when I need to snoop around HTML source, I’m firing up Mozilla to use their view source utility while also getting a feel for the new browser.
I’m currently using two flavors of Mozilla for evaluation. Mozilla 1.0 is already, apparently, out of date and Phoenix which is a bloat-free version of the browser totally written in XUL (rhymes with cool). It’s also worth noting that I’ve tinkered with Chimera which is a Cocoa-based Mozilla targeted for OS X.
From a buzz perspective, the features I’ve heard Mozilla has going for it are:
- Support for tabbed browsing
- Support for pop-up blocking
Support for anyone who doesn’t want to want to use IE.
That is paltry differentiating feature list. One might even call it pathetic, but Mozilla has been spending many years just getting a reliable, standards-based browser out the door to compete with IE. Evidence supporting this is found simply by looking at the release notes for Mozilla 1.1. Under “What’s New”, the first four bullet items are:
- Improved application and layout performance
Improved Web site compatibility
Improved CSS, DOM, and HTML standards support
All of this work has given Mozilla and, in particular, Mozilla’s Gecko layout engine the distinction of being a “fine piece of code” and, now, all the projects based on it can now actually start throwing significant punches at IE and getting into a meaningful feature fight.
The brief feature list above demonstrates that the menagerie of teams working on Mozilla are innovating… they are creating features which address post Y2k problems like intrusive advertising (pop-up ad eaters) and messy desktops (tabbed browsing), but these are single punches. Where is the KO that is going garner significant buzz? My guess is that it’s not a feature or set of features that is going to lead to Mozilla’s success. It’s a combination of using business muscle on the dorks and zealots while eliminating transition barriers for the non-dorks while giving everyone good reasons to stay. Oh, and you need to be lucky, too. I’ll explain.
Business muscle. Believe it or not, most people in the United States are scared of their computers. These are the dorks. Sure, they love getting email from Cousin Suzy, but when you ask them if they want to switch browsers, they look nervous and quickly change the topic. There are more of these people than there are righteous Microsoft haters, so simply having a decent browser which isn’t built by Microsoft isn’t going to cut it. What will work with these people is not giving them a choice. Force it on them. No one is better at forcing technology down people’s throats than AOL and, if the rumors are true, an AOL switch to Netscape/Mozilla could instantly re-ignite the browser wars. (Read: Access to 30 million AOL subscribers)
Another ideal group of Mozilla adopters are those who are pre-disposed to being zealots. Those who will follow the mother ship in whatever direction it takes. With their contract with Microsoft gone, Apple is free to deliver whatever browser it wishes with its popular Mac OS X operating system. It’s only 5% of the market, but it sure is a noisy 5%. Tell me the last time you saw a parody of a Microsoft ad?
Business muscle, unfortunately, pays little attention to what is new and what is cool. To business muscle, the fact that Phoenix is written in XUL is just another example of “those geeks over-engineering something to death”. Still, we need business muscle to direct the mindless masses to drink the proper koolaid because more people using Mozilla means more money for the likes for AOL and Apple which, in turn, means more money to promote future development.
Our second class of browser users are those who are capable of deciding for themselves: the non-dorks. To these users, there are two essential tactics Mozilla browser makers must employ.
Elimination of barriers. Barriers are basically cost. Ask yourself, what is it going to cost me to switch browsers? Thanks to the Marc Andreesen, there is no actual cash involved in switching browsers, so the cost must be measured in how much time it’s going to take you to get running with a Mozilla-flavored browser. Let’s forget about the potential download time of a new browser over a still scarily prevalent 56k modem. Let’s talk about the first time I, the new user, fire up, say, Phoenix. All of the following questions must be answered YES if any Mozilla project is going to have a chance:
- Does it display ALL my favorite web pages correctly?
- Does it load ALL my favorite web pages as fast as Internet Explorer?
- Is the user interaction model familiar? (i.e.: Can I find the reload button?)
- EXTRA CREDIT: Do all of my bookmarks, preferences, and other personalized hoo-hah show up automagically?
This is a simple list. Browser makers are going to look at this list and say, “duh”. Then, they’re going to get really excited about a new feature and plop it smack dab in front of a new user who is going say, “Uh, this doesn’t feel like home… buh-bye.” Incidentally, this embrace and extend strategy is one Microsoft used on Netscape back when Navigator owned 75% of the market. So, hey, we know it works! (NOTE: your mileage may vary if you happen to not be a multi-billion dollar monopoly)
So, you’ve got your zealot or your non-dork regularly using your browser. That’s great news. Here’s the bad news: Microsoft has scads of money that they’re willing to pour, on a moment’s notice, into whatever project they like. This means that there is a loaded gun pointed directly at the heads of each developer of a Mozilla-based browser.
There are only two things which will prevent this gun from firing. First, you have the United States Government who may actually do something about the Microsoft monopoly. Unfortunately, even with a marginally level playing field, Microsoft still has scads of cash. This makes the second preventative measure even more important: Innovation.
Not only is innovation a requirement to stay ahead of Microsoft, it’s also a must-have tactic in oreder to keep the non-dorks onboard. Mozilla-based browsers need to be perceived as being the cutting edge and the only way this will happen is if the developers are constantly innovating. They need to be looking at the problems the majority of the users of the Internet are having here in 2002 and they need to be thinking, “How are we going to solve this problem in a new way?”
Lastly, Mozilla browsers need a bit of luck. There needs to be some fundamental change in technology which presents an opportunity to differentiate a product. Also, the change needs to be ignored by Microsoft for a significant amount of time. This is hard because Microsoft looks for precisely these situations so they can rally the Redmondians around “Cause Du Jour”. This means that we need one more piece of luck. We need this technological shift to occur at a time when Microsoft, for whatever reason, is incapable of responding.
I do not know what this shift is. Perhaps it’s an application which hits critical mass only when a majority of Internet users have broadband connections. Perhaps it’s a rethinking of peer-to-peer networking. I’m comfortable not knowing what it is and I’m certain I won’t recognize it when it arrives, but I do know that Mozilla browser-makers better be lucky enough to be brighter than I.
The browser wars are over and Microsoft won – they own 96% of the market. Internet Explorer is essentially integrated into the operating system while AOL stumbles along with its measly 3% market share trying to figure out a strategic direction. No one cares about the browser because it’s become a commodity. No product has publicly differentiated itself enough from IE to actually merit anyone taking notice.
The plethora of Mozilla-based browsers proves that it’s either easy to build a browser or that Mozilla open source development model is finally achieving some semblance of critical mass… maybe both. The question remains, of this group of browser upstarts, who is willing to pick a fight with an unbeatable opponent using a technology most folks don’t care about?