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Smoke, Mirrors and Silence: The Browser Wars Reignite

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Think the web browser wars are over? Think again. World War I was dubbed “The Great War" and "The War To End All Wars.” Alas, that was an optimistic prediction; WWII followed in short order. The browser wars are coming back, and this time the whole World Wide Web is at risk, not just a few browsers and their vendors.

A new web browser war is brewing. The first sortie, a mini-war over browser tools, is already upon us. This war is different from the hysterical browser war of the 1990s, though: This time, it's for keeps.

In the 1990s, the browser war was a fight for consumer loyalty through novel browser features. If you manufactured the user's web browser, you were a media company. Rhetoric about new browser features was a key strategy back then; this time around, that kind of discussion is not as meaningful.

In this decade, the new battle is for the survival of the web itself. Much of the fight takes place in the background, away from consumers. The choices you might perceive you have are really only the tip of the iceberg. To ordinary consumers, this browser war is as inexplicable as trying to understand why Betamax, an early standard for video recorders, was driven into obscurity and failure by VHS. Examined objectively, VHS just wasn't as good as Betamax. Why on earth did it succeed? The new web browser war is like that.

An Update on Browsers

Superficially, the new browser war is still about web browsers. On one side is the aging but popular Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0. On the other side is a range of highly polished but less frequently used tools. These tools are effectively led by the Mozilla Foundation, whose technology now appears in many different browser and non-browser products. Among browsers, the Mozilla Foundation offers the Mozilla Application Suite, Firefox, and Camino. Beyond the Foundation are many other Mozilla-enabled browsers such as K-Meleon. In fact, Mozilla has built a niche on just about all platforms—from mobile phones and PDAs to mainframes. Non–Mozilla browsers such as Safari and Opera ensure that the web has not yet been reduced to a two-horse race between Microsoft and Mozilla. It's still a multivendor environment.

Mozilla is responsible for most of the early shots in this new war:

  • The Mozilla browser is technically better than IE. That is plain fact.

  • Mozilla has innovative and polished user-centric features—that IE doesn't have—such as tab-based browsing. Microsoft has roused from its browser slumber long enough to suggest that the same polished features are coming to IE sometime soon. That alone has raised a few eyebrows.

  • The recent announcement by AOL Time Warner that they will update their own browsers with the latest Mozilla technology also gives Mozilla technology a tick.

  • Mozilla technology just won't go away: Its popularity grows slowly but surely, like tree roots crumbling a rock. As of April 2004, independent statistics show Mozilla to be 4% or more of the global market, but for web developers, use may be as high as 10%. In some markets, such as Germany, use may now be as high as 19%. On some platforms, such as Linux, Mozilla is now the dominant player, and probably well over 50%.

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