The New Void in the Web Browser Market

Microsoft is backing away from the Web browser business. On the heels of its late May disclosure that it will cease developing new stand-alone versions of Internet Explorer for Windows, the company has announced it is abandoning the Mac browser market entirely. IE as a project is not dead — new versions will be integrated into future Windows releases, starting with Longhorn in 2005 — but from a user perspective, it is dormant, at least for now.

Some industry observers likely would argue that IE has been dormant for a while already. Microsoft’s pace of browser innovation has slowed drastically since it decimated Netscape in the late 1990s, and incremental updates, not sweeping advances, have been the rule for several years.

Still, corporations that standardized on IE previously could take comfort in the fact that Microsoft would support them if they ran into trouble, releasing patches and updates for IE glitches as they were discovered. Will Microsoft continue to provide this level of timely support once its Longhorn version of IE is released? It seems unlikely as older versions move toward end-of-life.

Waiting for Microsoft?

At the very least, current versions of IE are dead-end products. Although patches may be released as needed for the next couple of years, significant upgrades are unlikely. That is unfortunate, since Web browser technology is finally moving forward again, with new features like tabbed browsing shaking up the status quo.

The next complete release of IE is not slated to ship until 2005 — a geologic age in Internet time. And if past patterns hold true, most users will not upgrade to Longhorn until 2007 or even 2008. What are IE users to do in the meantime? Stagnate?

Not likely. A giant, gaping void has opened in the browser market. In the high-tech world, giant, gaping voids don’t tend to stay that way for long. A market vacuum is like catnip — and even in the low-margin browser arena, it is hard to imagine that no one will be interested in all that potential market share.

Challengers at the Gate

Who will step up to the plate? There are several possible contenders. Once-dominant Netscape might seem like an obvious choice, but a real effort to regain market share would require a lot of backing and attention from Netscape parent AOL. Right now, AOL has much weightier matters to worry about, such as digging out of its monstrous merger mess. Since the departure of several AOL top brass, including AOL founder Steve Case, the technical side of AOL Time Warner’s business is likely to get short shrift in the near future. So Netscape is an unlikely comeback kid.

Moreover, although Netscape has some useful features, such as tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking, so does Mozilla. The Mozilla project is active, rather than a corporate afterthought, and lightweight offshoots like Mozilla Firebird look promising in terms of providing speed, standards compliance and useful features without useless bloat.

Going on Safari

Then there is Safari, Apple’s browser for Mac OS X and perhaps the most interesting component of this discussion. According to published reports, Microsoft’s stated reason for exiting the Mac browser arena is that Safari is a better choice for Mac users.

Safari is not currently available for Windows, but a case can be made that Apple could benefit from porting it to the Microsoft platform. After all, if Safari is a better choice for Mac users, it could be a better choice for Windows users, too.

True, Safari on Windows would not have the extra speed gained through OS X integration, but it would be an actively updated, in-development product for older versions of Windows — something IE is not anymore. The idea of moving forward and using the latest features and standards — tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and spam filtering, to name just a few — instead of marking time might appeal to businesses and individuals alike.

Switch Groundwork

Porting Safari also would be beneficial as a way to familiarize Windows users with the look and feel of Apple products. iPod for Windows was a first step in this direction, and when the iTunes Music Store for Windows is launched this fall, it will be another. If Windows users become well acquainted with Apple’s interface, they will be far more willing to consider a “Switch” when it comes time to replace their aging PCs. Anything Apple can do toward that goal seems worthwhile to me.

In the meantime, the browser market hole gapes. For those who do not relish the prospect of upgrading to Longhorn to access the new version of IE two years from now, other, more immediate and interchangeable alternatives exist. The identity of IE’s heir should become apparent in the next few months.

Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.

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