Will there be a Web 2.0 browser war?

IE 6 is an inadequate platform for developing advanced Web 2.0 applications. I suspect that a number of hard core web application developers will nod their heads in agreement with this statement. From my experience, IE 6 is certainly more challenging to work with than some of its competitors, and it exhibits some very unpleasant behaviours that make it a difficult platform with which to develop advanced Web 2.0 applications.

Before I go further, I know some folks may be asking what exactly are “advanced Web 2.0 applications?” I describe them as the class of application making extensive use of AJAX and DHTML – which I like to, for convenience, group together under the AJAX umbrella – to provide a rich and compelling end user experience. Such applications can be easily identified by their ability to provide the flexibility, power, and richness of their desktop counterparts while at the same time bringing the power and benefits of the Web to the end user. The Zimbra Collaboration Suite’s web client as an example of such an application.

From a Web 2.0 application developers perspective (developers who use a lot of JavaScript and DOM manipulaion), IE 6 is plagued by a number of well known problems such as its ability to readily leak memory. Regrettably, Microsoft’s next release of Internet Explorer, IE 7, does little to resolve these issues.

The reality is that IE has for many years enjoyed an overwhelming dominance on the desktop. Thus Microsoft has had little or no motivation to drive forward the development of its browser – How many years has the end user community been lobbying for PNG transparency and tabbed browsing support? While both of these features are coming in IE 7, it is likely because of the momentum gained by Firefox that Microsoft is bothering to pay any attention to its browser. It is hard to blame Microsoft. After all the browser wars had been won and the competition (Netscape) vanquished. There was little if any reason to continue having some very talented engineers working on improving a product that was at the time sufficiently complete and that had no viable competition in the marketplace. In fact until recently Microsoft had for all intents and purposes disbanded its browser development team. The recently reconstituted team has been focusing on playing catchup with end-user features and has not to date addressed the fundamental issues hobbling the browser.

Fortunately, Mozilla’s Firefox browser has been able to fill the vacuum left by IE’s shortcomings. Firefox not only provides a better and more secure cross-OS end-user browsing experience, but it also provides a superior and more robust engine with which to develop AJAX applications. Indeed, comparing Firefox’s performance as a Web 2.0 platform against IE highlights some of the gaps that currently exist between the two browsers, and Firefox certainly requires less “magic” to make it behave than does IE. This is not to say that Firefox is perfect. It too suffers from a number of issues that hinder application developers (the infamous “disappearing” cursor inside of text input fields is one such example). The Mozilla folks definitely have a bunch of work left ahead of them.

So why is Firefox not dominating the desktop? It comes down to a combination of factors including: end-user and IT department inertia, websites/applications that use proprietary IE features, Windows dominance, IE being available out of the box, and to some extent people simple being unaware of Firefox (though this is changing). I wouldn’t count on this to continue holding true as AJAX becomes increasingly adopted by the development community, and as more and more compelling web-based applications are developed using Web 2.0 technologies. Indeed, Firefox’s superiority as a Web 2.0 platform is significant considering that this class of application will become more ubiquitous and increasingly feature rich over time.

Firefox and Web 2.0 technologies are not just a tactical threat, but potentially a longer term strategic threat to Microsoft’s desktop and server franchise. Microsoft almost certainly recognize it and as history demonstrates, strong competition has typically motivated Microsoft to focus their technology efforts. Indeed, considering that Microsoft themselves are making a bet on AJAX (they did after all invent XHR), it would seem to make sense for them to work towards improving IE, though to date reviews of IE 7 have been somewhat lackluster.

We can be thankful that Firefox is helping reset the bar, and while it may be too early to forecast the Web 2.0 browser war, the range of AJAX technologies – including those from Microsoft, Zimbra, and the broader Web 2.0 community – will all benefit from this competition. After all, competition leads to innovation and innovation benefits us all, developer and end user alike. The next couple of years are certainly going to be very interesting.

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