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Popularity Isn't All It's Cracked Up To Be

Reducing browser analysis to a popularity contest, however, seems to have a magical effect: It turns off the brains of most commentators. Popularity is an ogre that prevents any real analysis of industry trends. As a result, we're all less informed than we should be. Normally perceptive pundits such as Jon Udell are reduced to "I like it" (in his review of Mozilla's Firefox). Microsoft mavens like Mike Langberg respond "I don't like it" (Firefox again; free registration required to access this MercuryNews.com review).

Overall, the votes stack up in favor of Firefox (Kim Komando, Rob Pegoraro). But even those in favor are sometimes deflated by the sense that perhaps, for the average person, the quality work that better features imply just isn't that important. Homer Simpson, they imagine, would stick to Internet Explorer and not know the difference.

Such remarks highlight the "consumer lifestyle" aspects of browser use and the importance of design, but say nothing about the web from an architectural or global-commons point of view. If web browsers are reduced to consumer lifestyle options, there can hardly be an intelligent debate about the infrastructure they represent. Or can there? Surely browsers are more than yo-yos or Frisbees. Weren't the browser wars (round 1) about something bigger than digital lifestyle options? Wasn't there something actually at stake?

Today, few commentators are willing to dig deeper. Dan Gillmor is willing to apply some strategic analysis: Land all the lawsuits you want; if IE is available on Windows by default, that's what people will use. It's an old saw, unfortunately. That logic may explain IE's popularity, but mere popularity is no source of alarm. Why, then, did we care so much in the past whether IE was embraced? Alison Diana has perhaps a better recent summary: It's the security and standards holes in IE that continue to be problematic to those who care about the state of the global Internet.

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