Flock and the Productive Web

This week’s column on WSJ.com (subscription only, I’m afraid) is about Flock, or about the things that Flock will help us do more easily, such as post to blogs, post to Flickr, turn boring bookmarks into a wealth of shared knowledge on del.icio.us, and generally make the browser a real platform for productivity:

One of the fun things about the Internet is that just when you think the game is over, somebody moves the goal posts, shoots the ref and says the rules have changed. At least that’s the way I see it with a new browser called Flock.

 You’re no doubt familiar with the Web browser wars of the mid-1990s. Microsoft’s Bill Gates came to realize the importance of the Internet late, but quickly got up to speed and crushed the poor old Netscape browser by offering Internet Explorer for free. The epilogue is that despite some upstart threats from a Scandinavian company called Opera and an open source free-for-all called Firefox, Internet Explorer still dominates the Web. In sporting parlance, it’s a bit like Microsoft has parked a big bus in front of the goal, so no one else can score.

 But I don’t think that’s the whole story. For the browser, you see, is emerging from a passive click-and-read experience to a place where you can get your work done and even share it with others.

Microsoft, The Petty Giant

Microsoft have a nice new look to their website, including a goalkeeper who looks like he doesn’t really know his job. But what is it with the error message, in bright red, that appears at the top of the browser on pages such as Office if you use Firefox 1.0?

Warning: You are viewing this page with an unsupported Web browser. This Web site works best with Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.01 or later or Netscape Navigator 6.0 or later. Click here for more information on supported browsers.


How naff is that? Come on, Microsoft, get with the program and stop these petty little annoyances that might persuade some novices to drop Firefox in fear, but just put the rest of us in a bad mood, further entrenched in our obstinate refusal to kowtow before the IE god. My suggestion for Firefox’s equivalent to Microsoft’s Where do you want to go today?:

I’m not going to change back: Are you?

Internet Explorer Euthanasia

Is Microsoft intentionally allowing Internet Explorer to die?

It’s not brand-spanking new as an idea, but that’s the suggestion (I’m guessing the URL; it’s not posted on the website yet) of Dana Blankenhorn, who writes a newsletter called A-Clue.com. In it he writes:

Microsoft is deliberately letting Internet Explorer lose the browser market to Mozilla’s Firefox. Microsoft won’t admit this publicly but it makes sense. The company hasn’t had a major upgrade to the program in years. It was relatively trivial for Mozilla, descended ultimately from Netscape, to match those features, even go slightly beyond them.

Blankenhorn says Microsoft is sick of fixing bugs for software that has no business model. Instead, he says, Microsoft is putting its money into applications like its Media Player. “There are business models that can be built around Media Player. You can sell content through that conduit. Until someone creates a business model around browser dominance Explorer is dead.”

An interesting view. No one is quite sure whether IE is actually dead or dominant. Lance Ulanoff says the former, John Dvorak the latter. In the forums one reader makes an interesting point: You can no longer download a full version of IE anymore from Microsoft’s website. This is presumably because of Microsoft’s decision a year ago not to issue further ‘standalone versions’ of IE after IE SP1.

Although things have changed a bit since then — security is now a priority, for example — I think this is probably where the truth lies. Microsoft may believe that developing a browser for its own sake is a waste of time, so long as you can control the other applications users work in. So if you’re using Microsoft Office, for example, better to keep the user inside one of those programs when they search the Internet by building the Research Pane, a window that has browser like features and functions but keeps the user inside a Microsoft product. If you do that, who needs a browser, or rather, who cares what the user does in a browser?

I’m guessing here, but if I was Microsoft, I wouldn’t care too much about numbers. Who needs to ensure everybody is using IE if all they’re doing is surfing for porn? Better to lock in the high-paying customers who might use online databases, for example, by keeping them in Office, or Outlook, or OneNote, or whatever. This is why I think you’re seeing more and more add-in toolbars for products like Outlook. The less people have to use a browser, the less steps they have to take to get information, and the more control you have over whether they go.

This may be one reason why Google is developing its own browser, if the rumours are true. Google relies on the browser more than any other company and presumably doesn’t want to find its business model made irrelevant for these in-program searches. Google needs eyeballs, and so needs to control the program and context of its users. Blankenhorn may well be right. The browser battle just may not be a battle Microsoft thinks is worth winning, because they see the war has moved elsewhere: to the in-program toolbar or research pane.

Is Firefox Really Gaining Ground?

Is there any truth to the buzz that Mozilla Firefox is gaining ground on Internet Explorer?

EWeek seems to think so, earlier this month quoting WebSideStory and OneStat.com as saying they have seen about a 1% drop in IE usage. The Ziff Davis logs appear to confirm this. But whichever figures you like of those, it still means IE accounts for between 94% and 95% of traffic.

Here are some figures of my own I’ve found: W3Schools indicates that Mozilla has been gaining steady ground since January 2003, from 4% of visitors then to 13.7% in July. (Some folk have pointed out that this statistic is not useful since the website is geared towards developers.) July also marks the first decline in both versions of IE (5 and 6). Individual sites report similar statistics: Information Research, an electronic journal, reports Mozilla visitors at about 9.3%. Then there’s the non-show of hands at BlogOn2004 last week, when no one (some say a few) put up their hands when Microsoft’s Channel 9 guys asked the audience how many of them used IE.

As eWeek concludes, this may be hundreds of thousands of users switching to Firefox or Opera or Safari, but it’s not going to budge Microsoft. It may, however, mean an opportunity for smaller browser makers. And it doesn’t mean an end to security problems, which will doubtless just shift to the more popular (and hence lucrative) usage: Hence the fears that by trying to make itself popular, Firefox may end up making itself vulnerable.

I hope, however, the rise of an alternative will force lazy or incompetent programmers to ensure their websites work on all browsers. It’s no longer acceptable for websites to look good, or just function, in IE. We should start drawing up a hall of shame of websites that do this. Sadly, in my experience, banks are the worst culprits. Ironic, really, given that it is mainly security flaws in IE that are sending people to new browsers.

News: Netscape Is Dead, Er, Long Live Mozilla

 AOL has effectively killed off Netscape, the browser that started the whole WWW thing, laying off 50 developers and moving what is left of the project — an open source version of the browser called Mozilla — to a non-profit basis, Paul Thurrott of WinInfo writes in its latest newsletter. 
AOL purchased Netscape in November 1998 for a $4.2 billion (no, really) but last month signed a 7-year contract with Microsoft to use its Internet Explorer as the underlying technology in its AOL software, which pretty much signalled the depth of faith it had in its own browser. It really is the end of an era, or else the end of a very long funeral. IE now controls 95% of the browser market, pretty much reversing the situation about seven years ago.
Wired puts a more positive spin on the development, quoting Mozilla folk as saying this is the beginning of a new chapter, and saying that the Mozilla browser has “surpassed IE in terms of features and standards compliance. For example, the latest versions of Mozilla support tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and junk-mail filtering — none of which is provided by IE.” This is Mozilla’s own version of the event.