Browser Wars

19 Jun 2008

If you were in Microsoft’s shoes, how safe would you feel? Your internet browser is the No 1 web browser worldwide by far but the open source Firefox has managed to get people to download eight million copies of its newest browser in a 24-hour period – no mean feat. Let the battle of the browsers begin.

Checking email, reading the news, chatting to friends, listening to the radio, paying bills, viewing your family photo album, watching TV or writing documents. You name it and it is now being done within the web browser, our window not just to the internet but to the entire connected world.

Once upon a time, the browser was a mere application that navigated its way clumsily through static webpages but with the advent of new ‘Web 2.0’ programming languages like Ajax and Ruby on Rails, the web browser is becoming the Swiss army knife of the computing world.

Our demands for sound, video and full application functionality within our browser has lead to vast improvements but the impetus for Microsoft to improve its globally dominant Internet Explorer (IE) probably really only took off when the Mozilla Foundation released Mozilla Firefox Version 1 in November 2004.

Before this, the only browser capable of standing its ground with IE was Netscape Navigator (incidentally, the first browser I ever used and pretty good for its time).

But along came Microsoft with a pre-installed version of IE included on every Windows PC sold worldwide, upsetting Netscape’s dominant position.

This greater avenue for distribution was then matched by the Redmond company’s development of a faster browser that better met the guidelines of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the organisation for creating web standards.

And so Microsoft IE reigned for a while but competition from open source browser Mozilla Firefox has been growing for some time: Firefox is now the No 2 browser worldwide after IE.

Firefox has always pushed boundaries when it comes to browser functionality. The simple addition of tabbed browsing meant no more opening multiple windows, which was a nightmare for the multi-tasking browser.

I remember a friend of mine asking why you would need to open more than one window at a time, saying it was akin to incessant TV channel surfing, but soon this popular feature was added to the next version of Internet Explorer – IE6.

Now that Microsoft is at IE7 and soon set to release the next iteration, which is currently in beta testing, it has a lot to live up to as the hoopla surrounding the release of Firefox 3 has shown.

Aiming to reach five million downloads in a 24-hour period in order to achieve a Guinness world record, Firefox in fact achieved eight million downloads in this space of time on Wednesday 18 July, even though the number of downloads for Firefox 2 only numbered at 1.6 million.

This latest development indicates a surge in popularity for the open source browser, which is at its best not just speed-wise but in terms of how easy it is to install and to use third-party applications like FoxyMusic, and Stumbleupon.

Recent figures show the slow but steady migration of users from the mainstream IE to the underdog Firefox: in November 2006, Firefox held a 29.9pc market share in comparison to Internet Explorer’s 60.6pc.

By April 2008, Firefox had taken a 39.1pc slice in the market in comparison to IE’s dwindling 54.8pc. The remainder of the market share is dispersed between Apple’s Safari, the Mozilla suite and Opera.

While Firefox has some great new features (see review) IE has not been sitting on its laurels.

One new feature called ‘Activities’ will essentially unlock information contained within a webpage, allowing the user to look up relevant information that relates to data within the page and even send content from the page to another application, which sounds a bit like the Semantic Web is getting increasingly mainstream.

The question remains as to whether the new IE8 can match Firefox 3, or if the open source will leave the big boys eating dust.

By Marie Boran