The return of the browser wars

The browser wars -- famous in IT circles back when Netscape took on Internet Explorer -- are heating up again. But this time the scrappy challenger is known as Firefox.

The new browser war playing itself out in today's headlines may be read like an old Steven Segal movie -- that distinctive one where Segal's character is nearly killed and then rises up to take revenge -- but this updated version has far larger implications than any Sunday afternoon matinee flick.

We expect that this battle has only just begun and the most important battles remain to be fought.
Joyce Becknell,
analystSageza Group

In this version, the action is joined where protagonist Netscape has already been felled by arch-nemesis Microsoft, and has sought guidance from a new master (open source) in an effort to completely revamp its abilities, features and appearance.

Under the watchful eye of creator Blake Ross and the tutelage of a full complement of Mozilla Foundation developers, the once beaten Netscape browser was reborn in 2004 as Firefox 1.0.

But, unlike certain movie stars, Firefox didn't need special effects to make its comeback. All it took was word-of-mouth and a desire in the software community for products that provide better security. That desire has led more than 50 million downloads of Firefox in less than a year, according to analytics firm WebSideStory.

With numbers like this, it was only a matter of time before analysts, experts, and users started to label the proceedings as the new "browser war," a phrase made popular last decade as titans Microsoft and Netscape each battled for the top spot in Web browsing.

"In part two of dÉjÀ vu all over again, we seem to be revisiting the browser wars in all their glory," said analyst Joyce Becknell, an analyst with the Union City, Calif.-based Sageza Group. "This time, however, the market dynamics have changed."

Instead of Microsoft versus Netscape, Becknell said, where there were two software companies with competing products, there is Microsoft v. Mozilla, which she described as "another chapter in the war of the cathedral versus the bazaar."

"On one level, browsers may not seem as exciting as they did in the wild and woolly 90s," Becknell said. "Both products are free and at the end of the day you can accomplish the same thing with either: Accessing significant parts of the network through a standard interface."

However, ask an IE user to engage in a bit of "tabbed browsing" and they may scratch their heads, at least until Microsoft introduces a similar feature with IE 7.0.

Tabbed browsing, which is the ability to open multiple Web pages within a single browser window, has been available to Firefox users since the beta versions first made their rounds in 2004. According to an announcement from Microsoft in late May, tabbed browsing is set to debut with IE sometime next year.

"Microsoft is simply playing catch-up," said Nicholas Donovan, a consultant with Ionisys.

When visiting client sites, Donovan frequently comes across internal and customer facing portals that are developed and tested with IE only.

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"Obviously this restricts your potential customer audience, introduces inflexibility to your solutions as well as possible security issues to your Web based application," he said.

The fact that Firefox isn't tied to any one operating system gives it a distinctive level of flexibility that differentiates it from IE in a positive way, Donovan said. He added that Firefox offers a very comprehensive development API that is also cross-platform.

"I really don't believe [being tied to the OS] gives Microsoft the edge at all. [IE] is integrated into the Windows OS and this integration has not served it well either from a security standpoint nor a marketing perspective," Donovan said. "The close tie-in with the operating system is one of the major contributing factors of the security compromises suffered by Microsoft Explorer users."

But Becknell's analysis, while positive for Firefox, attributed a high level of integration as a strong point for Microsoft.

"Microsoft is thus able to integrate the product with other Microsoft products; a significant fact in light of their desktop and server dominance throughout much of the market. As collaboration and integration between Microsoft products expands, the ability to integrate the browser becomes more important," Becknell said.

Donovan, who has dealt with many clients who use IE, disagreed with Becknell's analysis.

"Most organizations require that their infrastructure be secure," he said. "In meeting that requirement, a browser that is both integrated with the most critical operating system functions and able to affect them is a detriment, despite any perceived performance benefit of the Web browser."

In the end, Becknell believes the main battles in this new browser war would come down to features.

"The revival of feature wars is more about catering to the needs of a demanding generation of users than it is about cool feature proliferation for engineering and marketing's sake," she said. "We expect that this battle has only just begun and the most important battles remain to be fought."

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