Saturday, February 28, 2009

Browser competition

Of all applications, the browser is now by far the most competitively fought over. Four major organisations are each spending around $50-100 million annually on a free product, with regular upgrades due in the next few months:

  • Microsoft: Internet Explorer 8 with a totally re-written browser engine
  • Mozilla: Firefox 3.1 with fast performance and new functionality like native audio and video, plus the release of Firefox for Mobile.
  • Apple: Safari 4 with new standards support such as a native database and fast performance
  • Google: Chrome 2.0 with a streamlined interface and fast performance

Somehow the browser market has avoided the featuritis that burdened office applications with endless menu options. In fact, browsers have got much simpler; three of the those above don't even have menus. Instead the focus has been on turning the browser into a great platform for developers: javascript performance may soon approach Java in speed, and support for new developer features such as advanced CSS styling and APIs such as geo-location enable new applications.

Most of the browsers above are open source - the only exceptions are Internet Explorer and the user interface of Safari. Browser vendors have cooperated over the HTML5 and CSS3 standards. They also have common test suites and performance tests such as SunSpider. But they haven't cooperated as much as they could.

For example, Firefox and Safari have produced competing web developer tools (starting with Firebug for Firefox, and Web Inspector for Safari). They are writing competing javascript engines and debuggers.

Perhaps a bit more cooperation would help them both move forward faster. Why not agree on a standard tool for developer help (perhaps based on Mozilla's documentation), or a standard text editor (based on Mozilla's Bespin)? Perhaps Google could take the lead with process separation, and Apple with profiling tools. None of this would prevent further competition in the main browser engine, but it would ensure rapid progression for everyone.

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