Browser Wars: Mozilla vs. Safari vs. Internet Explorer

Wednesday Jun 18th 2008 by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
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Didn’t we have a browser war years ago? Let’s hope the current one turns out far better.

With Apple aggressively pushing Safari to Windows users who are running iTunes, and Mozilla and Opera releasing new versions of their popular browsers, it seems that the browser wars are hotting up once again.

Is a second browser war going to be a good thing or a bad thing for web users?

The current state of play is that Internet Explorer dominates the Web, commanding some 74 per cent. Following at a distant second is Firefox, with some 18 per cent market share. Safari holds some 6 per cent (hardly snapping at Firefox’s heels, despite Apple’s posturing), while Opera trails far behind with a 0.7 per cent market share.

Now Microsoft has dominated the browser market share for too many years, and the negative effects of this are obvious. Internet Explorer 7 is one of the worst browsers currently available. It’s slow, offers poor standards compliance, and it’s a serious memory hog , and nearly three-quarters of Web users have to suffer these problems daily. No matter how you crunch those numbers, that’s an awful lot of people getting a sub-standard browsing experience.

But now we have Mozilla and Apple (and to a much lesser extent, Opera) shaking things up. Testing I’ve done show that Firefox 3.0 is the fastest browser currently available. SunSpider JavaScript benchmark tests shows that Firefox 3.0 processes JavaScript ten times faster than Internet Explorer 7, while Opera offers the best CSS standards compliance (scoring 83 out of 100 in the ACID 3 test – a test in which Safari 3.1 scores 75, and Firefox 3.0 scores 71).

Mozilla is hoping that heavy promotion and publicity stunts such as their Download Day Guinness World Record attempt will encourage people to switch browsers. (Mozilla has also changed the Firefox install routine too, so that Firefox 3.0 becomes the default browser unless the user unchecks a box.)

Apple has taken a more aggressive approach, pushing Safari aggressively – though the company has backed down somewhat from how it originally pushed Safari onto users via Apple’s Software Updater program.

But do publicity stunts and aggressive push techniques really help Web users?

Well, Safari hasn’t turned out to be as secure a web browser as Apple had promised, so that tends to question the sanity of the company’s decision to push code so aggressively. For Apple, gaining market share seemed to be something the company was willing to do no matter what the cost.

While Mozilla’s Download Day is not an aggressive land grab but instead a voluntary drive, it still encourages millions of people to download, install and run code that hasn’t yet been properly battle tested. Some people are urging caution, which might be a wise thing given the hoopla surrounding this release.

Continued: IE dominance will be tough to challenge

New code and new features inevitably lead to bugs, and new code attracts attention. And the greater the public interest, the more interested the hackers will be in exploiting that code.

Having lived through the last browser war, I’m not all that enthusiastic about the idea of entering into a new one. While stagnation in the browser market hasn’t been good for Web users, it has to be understood that for Microsoft, Mozilla, Apple and Opera, the goal of a browser war is ultimately to increase market share.

Sure, we might see browsers improve all round (although the betas of IE8 still desperately need to improve), it’s browser share that all the players are interested in. And despite all its shortcomings, the Internet Explorer market share is going to be a truly tough nut to crack.

Internet Explorer is well entrenched and Microsoft isn’t going to let market share slip too far without a serious fight. So far we’ve only seen the small players with relatively small market shares getting involved in the browser war. Just wait until Microsoft gets involved.

What I’d like to see happen is not a war but co-operation. What would help Web browsers (the people, not the applications) would be to see a decent framework of standards evolve (beyond what we have nowadays with the W3C) and to see all the major players come together and start working to make surfing the Web better and safer for all.

Picture it, Microsoft at one end of the table, Apple at the other, Opera and Mozilla somewhere in the middle … but let’s be serious, that’s never going to happen.

Let’s just be glad about one thing, there’s no Netscape in the mix!

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