The Browser Wars: Another Milestone

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence lack of links)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you know, I’m into milestones, and another one has been passed in recent days: Microsoft’s market share of browsers is down below 60%.

Now this may not sound very exciting to you, but it is. And you are to be congratulated. Because it’s you who have made it happen.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, when I started training journalists on things digital, I used to ask them what browser they used. They either answered Internet Explorer—Microsoft’s browser, which comes with Windows—or they would look blankly at me.

The truth is that since the demise of Netscape in the late 1990s, there really hasn’t been much of a battle between the browsers. Most Windows users accepted Internet Explorer, while Mac users settled for the Apple browser Safari.

So when I would ask the class whether they had heard of Firefox, the Open Source browser, they would again look blank, or bored, or both.

That was then and this is now, two years on.

Now most of them have heard of Firefox, and many of them have it installed on their computers.

Not only that: Most of them have tried out Google’s own browser, Chrome.

Indeed, nowadays, when I venture a peek over shoulders at cafes and in offices, I see many more Firefoxes (or Chromes) than I used to.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that, according to research company Net Applications, Internet Explorer’s market share has, for the first time in more than a decade, fallen below 60%.

Of course, 60% still sounds like a good chunk of the market, but remember this: Internet Explorer is the default browser on Windows computers, which still occupy most of the world’s desktops. Last year that figure was nearly 68%. Two years ago, when I started the training course, the figure was 77%. Back in 2003 it was 95%.

Compare this with Firefox, which is now on nearly a quarter of the world’s computers. And while Chrome has only a small share—6.7%—it is growing at quite a clip. A year ago that figure was closer to 2%.

Some of this may be down to a ruling in Europe which has forced Microsoft to offer 12 different browsers. But more likely is that people are getting smarter—more demanding—about what is on their computers.

After all, we spend a lot more time in our browser than we used to. Most of us now use webmail, rather than a separate email application. A lot of us use tools like Google Docs, rather than Microsoft Office. And, of course, there are productivity killers like Facebook, all of which are primarily accessed through the browser.

So what makes these other browsers so appealing?

Well, Internet Explorer is considered notoriously insecure, for one. Lots of bad things are supposed to happen if you use for online banking etc. And users like their browsers fast and light. But perhaps most importantly, Firefox—and increasingly Chrome—offer a range of plug-ins (little bits of software that, well, plug in, to your browser to do extra things for you, from tell you the time in Timbuktu to letting you save clips to online databases, or to Facebook).

This, I think, is part of a broader trend that Microsoft and others haven’t figured out yet.

I see an increasing number of people using Gmail, Google’s webmail service, and I’ve noticed that all these people have customized their interface. This wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Now they’re exploring beneath the hood of the default settings, and changing their environment to suit their moods and work styles. Some of these changes are small—background colours or themes—but they’re also more productivity-oriented, adding labels and filters to their workflow.

This is great. This is just what they should be doing. But it’s also part of a bigger trend that I believe explains the inexorable shift away from the default.

The simple truth is that as we spend more time in the browser we’re less likely to just go with what’s given to us. We want our browser to be as good as possible and because the changes we make to our online services are movable feasts: If I’ve changed the background on my Gmail to black, shifting to another browser isn’t going to reset it back to boring white.

There’s another factor at play here. Websites used to look very different depending on what browser you used. That’s changed, as developers follow standards more closely (what’s called being “standards compliant”). This gives us users a lot more flexibility—we don’t feel like we’re going to break something on our computer, or not be able to access, say, our banking website—if we’ve left the reservation and installed another browser.

The next step: the browser replaces your operating system. Google is onto it. 

Foleo, Surface, Stumbling etc

There’s lots of news out there which I won’t bother you with because you’ll be reading it elsewhere. But here are some links in case:

  • Palm has a new mini laptop called the Foleo. I like the idea, but I fear it will go the way of the LifeDrive, which I also kinda liked.
  • Microsoft has launched a desktop (literally) device called the Surface. Which looks fun, and embraces the idea of moving beyond the keyboard not a moment too soon, but don’t expect to see it anywhere in your living room any time soon.
  • eBay buys StumbleUpon, a group bookmarking tool I’ve written a column about somewhere. I don’t use StumbleUpon that much but I love the idea of a community-powered browsing guide. Let’s hope eBay doesn’t mess it up like they seem to be doing with Skype.
  • Microsoft releases a new version of LiveWriter, their blogging tool. Scoble says Google is planning something similar. True?

Oh, and Google Reader now works offline. Here are my ten minut.es with it, and a how to guide at ten ste.ps. This is big news, because it’s the first step Google have made in making their tools available offline. I’ve found myself using their stuff more and more, so the idea of being able to use the Reader, Calendar, Docs and Gmail offline seems an exciting one. (We’re not there yet, but Google Reader is a start.)

This brings me to again plead with anyone offering an RSS feed of their stuff, to put the whole post in the feed. Offline browsing is not going to work if you can only read an extract.

Loose Bits, Nov 7 2006

  • Bleeding Edge, always worth a look, points to a new Firefox extension for saving material off the web: Zotero. It not only does a great job of storing globs of web pages or the whole thing but it has an academic bent too, allowing you to store bibiographic information too. That said, it’s not musty: It lets you assign tags to stuff you’ve saved, lets you relate one item to another, and makes exporting everything you’ve saved pretty easy too. Reminds me a little of the excellent ScrapBook, another clip-saving tool. Full, updated Loose Wire list of them here.
  • Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine pours a little cold water over Boratmania. Part of me agrees with him; I’ve only been able to take Ali G and Borat in small doses (though we do have all the DVDs.) The best bit is actually watching my wife laugh at his antics. Trust me: Cohen crosses most cultural boundaries.
  • Playing around with a newsreader called Omea, which I like. I have stuck with FeedDemon, but its lack of support for Firefox and memory appetite, has pushed me to find alternatives. What’s your favorite aggregator?

Newspapers, And Exaggerated Reports of Their Demise

(A podcast version of this post is available

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.)

Steve Rubel, powerblogger (does anyone blog more than Steve? No one in my feed list does) complains about how newspapers offer only partial RSS feeds: for those of you not following this, an RSS feed is a bit like a newswire, a stream of stories as they are published, arriving in the subscribers inbox (or reader software, or customised homepage, or dynamic bookmark folder. A partial RSS feed is a bit like a newswire that only gives you the first few paragraphs of a story, requiring you to go to the newspaper’s homepage (in my newswire analogy, run into the next room to find the rest of the story on the the whole, scrolling ticker tape machine).

I agree with Steve, it’s dumb. Not a smart way to go. Where I don’t agree is when he reckons that newspapers as physical folds of paper will be dead in a decade:

Flash forward 10 years from today. We will look back and laugh how quaint it was that we received our news on dead trees. Yes, I am saying the word “newspaper” will be a misnomer. News will be delivered automatically each day, not by the paper boy, but via wirelessly enabled e-paper devices that are easy to read. All of it will be powered by RSS.

Steve is being a tad provocative here, although not as provocative as he would have been had he said it a few years ago. The conventional wisdom is that newspapers as a delivery mechanism is dead. To which I’d like to be equally provocative: let’s meet again in 10 years and see whether this is true. Yes, we know the younger generation aren’t reading newspapers. Yes, we know newspapers are in financial trouble. Yes, we know that newspapers are not an elegant delivery mechanism. Yes, we know that there are better ways of getting information to us. And we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of how better to represent news information. But we also know this:

  • people love great writing, and it’s rare to find it on blogs, where by definition writing is fast and, usually and unlike this post, brief;
  • people love great reading — as in, laying back with a coffee, sitting on a train, by the pool/sea/prison wall, reading something they enjoy. No technology has replaced paper for this, nor is it likely to. Yes, there are cool tools for e-paper, and these will have their uses, but they won’t replace paper.
  • people love good editors. Editors are not there just to put all the stories together. They’re there to decide what may make interesting reading, from commissioning articles to laying them out on the page and deciding a headline. When we buy a newspaper we’re paying in part for the editor’s choice of stories on the page. We’re effectively saying to the editor: You have a better idea of what is out there, and I trust you. Tell me. Inform me. Entertain me. (Today’s front page of one of my regular newspapers today had three great stories I would never have found had I just confined myself to my regular newsfeed: on reclassification of U.S. documents, on a failing Hong Kong plan for a cultural centre; on East Timor trying to avoid the pitfalls of an oil bonanza.)
  • people love to get their newspaper wet/dirty/crumpled/folded/annotated/left behind/eaten by the dog. A newspaper is a very flexible device, and it’s cheap enough so I don’t mind that I drop it in the bath. I’m not sure the Sony ePaper device is going to be as easy to dry off.

Paper
You can also hit people with it

Newspapers are in crisis. And they should be smarter about RSS, and understand their value is not in hot news, but in a perspective, a gathering of features, commentary and semi-hard news stories. We can laugh at their slowness — especially in covering things online, which for them is a bit like an adult trying to figure out what the hell is going on in the minds of their teenage offspring. But we should be really careful about writing off them, or their tried and trusted delivery mechanism, any time soon. See you in 10 years Steve, and let’s see who’s right.

Directory Of Clipping Savers

Update Nov 7 2006: A new kid on the block for Firefox 2.0 users: Zotero. (Thanks, Charles)

I recently wrote in WSJ.com (subscription required) about how to save snippets of information while you’re browsing. I didn’t have space to mention all the options I — or readers — came across, so here’s the beginnings of a list. Please feel free to let me know about more: The basic criterion is that the service lets the user easily capture material they’ve found on the Internet (for stuff that’s more socially oriented, check out my Directory of Social Annotation Tools).

  • Zotero. It not only does a great job of storing globs of web pages or the whole thing but it has an academic bent too, allowing you to store bibiographic information too.
  • ContentSaver:   is both a browser add-in and an Office-style application at the same time: With the additional toolbar and the extended shortcut menus in the browser, you can easily gather material during your Internet research. 35 EUR (Thanks, Ganesh)
  • eSnips:    Save real web content not just links: relevant paragraphs and images you find on any web site….oh yes, and links too. 1GB free
  • wists.com: The idea is to bridge the gap between blogging and bookmarking. It aims to make simple list blogging as easy as bookmarking and make bookmarking take advantages of weblog publishing, with automatic thumbnail image creation etc. (David Galbraith)
  • Net Snippets: The friendly, intuitive way to maximize the effective use of information from the Internet and online research
  • Jeteye: enables users to create, send, view and share any type of online content, add notes and annotations and save it all in user organized Jetpaks™ through an easy drag and drop interface.
  • Google Notebook: makes web research of all kinds – from planning a vacation to researching a school paper to buying a car – easier and more efficient by enabling you to clip and gather information even while you’re browsing the web.
  • ClipMate: ClipMate saves time and makes you more productive by adding clipboard functions that the Windows clipboard leaves out – starting with the ability to hold thousands of “clips”, instead of just one. ($35)
  • Clipmarks: Clip and tag anything on the web
  • Onfolio: a PC application for collection, organizing and sharing information you find online. ($30 to $150)
  • EverNoteQuickly create, organize and find any type of notes on an endless, digital roll of paper. (from free to $35)
  • ScrapBook: a Firefox extension which helps you to save Web pages and easily manage collections. Key features are lightness, speed, accuracy and multi-language support.
  • Omea Reader: Free and easy to use RSS reader, NNTP news reader, and web bookmark manager. It’s fast, it aggregates, and it keeps you organized.

My personal favorites? I love ScrapBook because it lets me save stuff in folders on my own computer. Clipmarks is great for online stuff, and the tagging/folder mix is powerful. EverNote has its moments but for all its interface ingenuity, it’s not easy to organise stuff.

An Opera whinge:

Some readers have pointed to Opera’s ‘Notes’ (Flash Demo) function which is neat, but doesn’t do as much as ScrapBook (there’s also a Firefox extension called QuickNote which performs more or less the same tricks as the Opera Notes. And besides, I’m still mad at Opera for not supporting drag and drop. What is it with them?  (Sad to say that, because I think Opera have been great in improving interface design. But I think they’ve dropped the ball. Back in February 2003 I was wowed (WSJ.com link; subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote:

Just when I thought software had become as innovative as a bacon sandwich, something came along to prove me wrong. There is software out there that is innovative and that actually makes things easier. It’s a Web browser made by a Norwegian company called Opera Software ASA and its latest incarnation, released last month, is a real gem.

Of course, that was before Firefox came along and stole my heart.

Does IE7 Herald The Death of Windows 98 and 2000?

You may have read that Microsoft has launched a beta version of its browser, Internet Explorer 7. An aspect of this that seems to have not received widespread publicity is the fact that with IE 7, Microsoft has effectively killed off Windows 98 and Windows 2000.

In an interview with eWeek, Gytis Barzdukas, director of product management in Microsoft’s security business technology, says: “When we do all this engineering work, the architecture is changed significantly. In some cases, it’s more expedient for customers to just move to a new operating system where the enhancements are easier to deploy.” Ah. So that’s all we have to do?

Of course, it’s not the first time that folk still using Windows 98 have been left out. Windows 98 has not been supported by Microsoft since June 2002; ‘hotfixes’ — vital software patches, usually security-related — have not been provided since June 2003. The Windows 98 homepage has not been updated since October 2002, and the ‘Still Using Windows 98?’ tip page hasn’t seen a revision since September 2000.

So how many Windows 98 users are there out there? One poster to a Firefox forum reckoned between 20–30% of users, while a survey by AssetMatrix recently concluded that Windows 2000 “still accounts for nearly half of all Windows-based business desktops”, according to ZDNet.

This is always a tough one for Microsoft. It’s easy enough with physical products because there’s not much more you can do to support them, except fix them if they’re broken. With individual software products you could provide upgrades and fixes until a new version comes along but the choice for the consumer is clearer: Stick with an old version of Office if you are happy with the features, and the only thing Microsoft can think of to get back at you is call you a dinosaur (“Ouch! That hurt!”). Most programs have too many features, anyway, so the lure of more features isn’t that much of a lure for most people.

But operating systems — and any software that interacts with the Web and so needs security features — are different. Stop adding fixes and features and the software is effectively useless for the customer. So by not making IE available to Windows 2000 and 98 users, those folk are stuck. Unless of course they move over to Firefox or Opera. And what happens if they stick with IE 6? The first security vulnerability to come along is going to hit the most vulnerable bunch of people — folk who, for one reason or another, are quite happy with their Windows 98 computer.

Opera’s Eighth Is Out

Opera’s browser, version 8.0, is officially out today. According to the blurb

Opera 8 is a substantial upgrade from previous versions, and includes new features such as a unique security information field that indicates the trustworthiness of banking and shopping Web sites and voice interaction capabilities. The new version of Opera also introduces an advanced page-resizing function that adapts Web pages to fit the width of any screen or window. Today’s release for Windows is available in English, German, Dutch and Polish, with more languages to follow. The Linux version is available in English, also with more languages to come. A beta version of Opera 8 for Mac (English) is also available today.

Opera 8 is available free of charge with an unobtrusive banner at the top of the user interface. To remove the banner users must register the browser for $40, though various discounts are offered

Firefox Glitiches, Set Default Browser Solutions, And Other Monday Morning Issues

Another Monday morning, another irritant. This time it’s one of those annoyances in Windows XP that should have been sorted out long ago: Setting a browser as your default browser is no piece of cake. Everything else Internet-related is, from the default editor you might want to use to how you want to handle calendar file. Just go to Internet Properties in your Control Panel. But setting a default browser is not there, mainly because the Internet Properties window is actually the options window for Internet Explorer. And what’s the point of allowing users to open IE, just so they can close it down forever?

Anyway, here’s an easy solution: SetBrowser, a small slice of freeware from PC-Tools that allows you to set more or less any browser you like as the default browser, or any individual protocol, and to test it. It works pretty well, although don’t have it running at the same time Internet Properties unless you want some weirdness to happen in the latter.

By the way, this didn’t fix the problem I was trying to solve, namely an error that keeps popping up when a program tries to launch Firefox (opening links is no problem; it just seems to cause a problem with certain functions, though I don’t know enough to be able to figure out what.) It happens, for example, when I try to open Chat History in Skype, even if Firefox is no longer my default browser. The error message is this:

—————————
MOZILL~1.EXE – Entry Point Not Found
—————————
The procedure entry point ??0nsCAutoString@@QAE@PBD@Z could not be located in the dynamic link library xpcom.dll.
—————————
OK  
—————————

Anybody got any ideas? I assume it’s a glitch in a plug-in, but which one? And is there any easy way to isolate the problem?

A New Kind Of RSS Reader For Macs

For Mac fans, there’s a new RSS and Atom News Reader for OS X, with an interesting new twist.

Mesa Dynamics today said it had released Tickershock, “an interactive RSS and Atom news headline reader inspired by the news crawls of 24-hour cable news channels”. Tickershock, it says, is “a departure from typical RSS applications that emulate web browser or email reader environments. Focusing on the “push” nature of the technology, Tickershock aims to be a passive experience only until the user decides a headline is worth exploring: a double-click on a news headline brings up a “News Inspector” from which one can explore a story in greater depth.”

It sounds quite funky. Unfortunately at the time of writing there’s no mention on their website of the product, although the press release says a trial version of Tickershock is available for download at http://www.mesadynamics.com . It requires Mac OS X 10.2.8 (Jaguar) or later and will cost $20.

RocketInfo, A Revamped Business Search With RSS Built In

RocketInfo has released a new version of RocketNews, its three-year old news and business information search engine. The Ottawa company also has a pretty cool RSS reader which I’ve mentioned before somewhere.

Here are some of the changes:

  • limit the scope of searches to news from today, yesterday or up to 5 days ago;
  • limit searches to sources from a specific geographic region, such as North America, Asia or Europe;
  • specify the content type of publication, such as a business, entertainment, finance, general, health science, sports or technology;
  • RSS feeds of searches for use by anyone for non-commercial or individual news tracking.

Definitely worth checking out.