Browser Wars Ii The Saga Continues
Posted on 10 Jul 2003
by Peter-Paul Koch (ppk)
Rated 3.14 (Ratings: 35)
- More articles in Commentary & Society
In the First Era of browser history Mosaic and the other early browsers ruled. The Second Era was that of Netscape dominance. Microsoft's challenge to Netscape marked the beginning of the Third Era, the Heroic Age of the Browser Wars. Netscape's bleeding to death marked the start of the Fourth Era of Explorer dominance.
The recent news about Explorer shows that this Era has come to an end, too. We stand at the beginning of the Fifth Era of browser history. What will it bring?
This article gives an overview of recent events and tries to predict what will come. It tells the whole story, not just bits and pieces of it. Furthermore it answers some questions that other commentators ignore. Why doesn't Explorer Windows fix its CSS support? Who really killed Explorer Mac?
Throughout, the emphasis is on the story, not on the history. Therefore it focuses on the broad overview and leaves out many technical details. The article is meant as a tutorial on creating and spreading browser stories in terms our prospective audience will understand.
Before studying the new stories, a summary of the old ones.
What has gone before
After the smoke of the Browser Wars had driven away, Explorer reigned supreme. It had thoroughly trounced its rival and could rest on its laurels, reaping the rewards of forethoughtful investment. It rested and reaped for three years, growing fat and sluggish in the process.
In the pro-Microsoft view, Explorer took the role of Tragically Misunderstood Prophet. Somehow this role has never caught hold of popular imagination, though. Therefore the Windows version is generally seen as the Evil Usurper, and the Mac version as its Good Cousin that was crowned King of Mac by the machinations of the Usurper but turned out to be a pretty decent one.
Netscape 4 abdicated and took the role of Senile Dinosaur. It retired to its own little corner of browser land, where it still spends its days in happy oblivion. Its health is declining, but its health has been declining continually since its birth two Eras ago, so there's no need to worry.
The Mozilla Project inherited the role of Legitimate Exile, once to return to its rightful domains. The Project slowly plodded forward, while a solid kernel of supporters waited and hoped, waited and hoped, then waited and hoped a little bit more, after which the Project was said to be nearly ready. Mozilla 1.0 came, but by then the world had changed and didn't care quite as much as expected.
Opera was the Sympathetic Outsider. People liked it but didn't really expect it to make significant gains. Nonetheless it showed a slight but consistent growth.
The big surprise of the Fourth Era was Konqueror, which came unexpectedly and stunned the web development community by its general excellency. Its very existence proved that you don't need a huge Project to make a good browser. It didn't really get a role because it didn't fit into the overall scheme of things inherited from the Browser Wars. Besides it was confined to the Linux side of things.
That's how it was, one quiet Era long. But now something has happened in browser land. In fact, major events have started happening at a breathtaking pace.
The real story
"When will there be the next version of IE?"
"Why is this? the anti-trust?"
"Although this is off topic, I will answer briefly: Legacy OSes have reached their zenith with the addition of IE 6 SP1. Further improvements to IE will require enhancements to the underlying OS."
These fabled lines are hidden in a transcript of a talk show, a communication channel curious even for Microsoft's exacting standards. We learn Explorer 7 will be tied to the new Microsoft operating system and we are left to infer that it'll take its own sweet time before actually appearing on the scene.
Criticism immediately reached boiling point. Web developers bewailed the fact that end users who want Explorer 7 will have to buy the newest Windows version. In my opinion this critique, though correct in a literal sense, is both dishonest and ineffective.
Everyone seems to forget that end users don't care about Explorer 7, with or without a new OS. End users will upgrade to the new OS, or will not upgrade, for reasons that have nothing to do with browsers.
We web developers project our own desires and anger on the end users. Only we want the new browser. Only we will be forced to buy the newest Windows version to be able to check our sites in Explorer 7. But we don't admit that even to ourselves. That's dishonest.
For several reasons we may legitimately get angry at Microsoft in the name of the end user, but not in our own name. One reason is a strange kind of psychological block that I don't yet understand.
There is another reason, though, and a good one, too. To us, the story of the Tied Browser shows that Microsoft is Evil. That's our real story. Telling it in the name of the end user is indeed far more effective than telling it in our own name.
Fine, so we want to tell the "Microsoft is Evil" story once again for all the usual reasons. Right now, though, we're telling it in anger and bewilderment, endlessly babbling about web standards and shaking our fists at people in general just because it makes us feel good, not for any strategical purpose. That's ineffective.
Instead, we should take all the browser stories and merge them into one big, moving epic contained in a template our audience will easily understand. We should create effective propaganda or shut up.
A long wait to go
If Explorer 7 will be tied to the new OS, it will take at least another two years (and probably three) before it becomes available.
Now this is bad news for us web developers, especially since Microsoft, despite an urgentWaSP call, seems in no hurry to fix a few glaring CSS bugs in Explorer 6. Why not? For the sheer joy of being Mulishly Obstinate?
The famous talk show transcript says: "Further improvements to IE will require enhancements to the underlying OS." I tentatively translate this line as "We cannot improve IE any more" because it fits with an idea I've had in the back of my mind for two years now.
Why is Microsoft unwilling to fix the CSS bugs that everyone's been asking it to fix for ages? I think it's not unwilling but unable to do so. Explorer's code engine cannot be updated any more.
Sooner or later, browser makers run into the limitations of their programs. Their large libraries have a tendency to grow fat and hard to change, especially when they must incorporate functionalities that weren't foreseen when the original program was written.
This happened to Netscape 4, and it took a huge Project to break loose. Why shouldn't a code engine that has been up and running since 1997 suffer from the same symptoms? Why shouldn't it be technically impossible to implement the changes the WaSP requests?
The code engine really ought to be rewritten from scratch. That'll cost a lot of time and money, which, until now, the company was unwilling to spend. Now though, the strategical focus and budgetary flexibility the development of a new OS gives are added to the technical necessity torewrite Explorer's code engine. Now the project can start.
I feel this theory neatly explains everything that has happened (or rather, not happened) to Explorer in the last few years, up to and including the revelations of the past months. It also tells us that we'll have a long wait to go even if Explorer 7 will not be tied to the new OS.
In the past Microsoft has proven itself willing to add some standards support to its browsers, and it might be precluded from adding more only by the limitations of the code engine itself, not by any inherent disinclination. In my opinion there's no reason to despair forever of Explorer's standards compatibility.
A word of warning to the wise: web standards are not part of the story we want to tell. They are too complicated for our audience. They should not be used at all in external communication.
A changing of roles
So for the next two to three years we're stuck with Explorer 6 and its incomplete CSS support. Even after Explorer 7 enters the market in whatever form, it will take another two to three years for it to replace Explorer 6.
So are we stuck with Explorer 6 for four to six years more!? Yup.
Zeldman sees some good among the bad. He says: "'what IE6 is capable of' makes a far better platform for standards-based design than 'what Netscape 4 can do,' which was where many of us were trapped the last time the browser space froze." He is of course right (try anyCSS in both browsers).
Nonetheless it won't feel right, and that feeling is the next ingredient for our story. As soon as we start being really angry at Explorer 6, we won't compare it to Netscape 4 but to its competitors: Safari, Mozilla and Opera. We want Explorer to support the standards like they do.
So we'll be as annoyed with Explorer 6 as we once were with Netscape 4. We won't feel like we're better off. We'll see Explorer as Netscape 4 reborn.
Therefore Explorer 6 will start changing roles shortly. Where once it was an Evil Usurper, it will now take on certain aspects of Netscape 4's role. It will mutate into a Senile Evil Dinosaur Usurper within the next year or so.
"Explorer is a Dinosaur" meets "Microsoft is Evil". Interesting development. Besides, we could try to port more of Netscape 4's traditional attributes to Explorer, for instance its well known tendency to lose any Browser War it's in.
The king is dead
Microsoft did not perform in the next act of the tragedy, it sent out the Messenger instead. Says the Messenger, on Friday the 13th: "Explorer Mac is dead. Stabbed in the back."
Now there are two ways of describing Explorer Mac's radically changed role. One is obviously Innocent Victim of Brutal Murder, an angle that can have its uses in the unfolding story.
Nonetheless, let's not be too quick to judge. This role is excellently suited for consumption outside web development circles, but we web developers have to take some additional points into account.
The most important point is that we'll have to get rid of Explorer Mac anyway.
Back in March 2000, I was pleasantly surprised when I tried it for the first time. Microsoft had succeeded in creating an excellent browser that supported CSS far better than its Windows cousin. In fact, it was a pioneer in many respects. It quickly became my favourite browser and stayed so for more than a year.
Recently, though, I detected unmistakable signs of old age. It shows more and moresmall but annoying CSS bugs. Even worse, its W3C DOM implementation turns out not to support moderately complex scripts, even though theory says it should. It doesn't throw errors, it just crashes. After I'd confirmed and reconfirmed these crashes, I concluded that Explorer Mac has survived its usefulness and will become a serious liability to W3C DOM scripting.
I said my farewells. So long, and thanks for all the CSS.
Since I must work around Explorer Mac for the rest of its existence, I hope it will disappear with reasonable speed. Of course it won't. It'll take at least a year before it starts disappearing in earnest and another year or two before it's been reduced to a marginal role. During that time I'm going to
<sigh /> browser detect it away from my advanced scripts.
This story of the aging browser is not for general consumption. Talking about Explorer Mac's technical problems would erode its role as Innocent Victim. The story is part of Explorer Mac's other role, though.
Long live the king
If we really get down to it, who killed Explorer Mac? Safari did.
When Apple proudly presented its very own Safari browser in January 2003, everybody understood the obvious results of this move. Oddly, now that the results start being visible people seem to have forgotten about the whole affair.
Safari will be installed on every new Mac computer and any buyer of a new Mac will automatically use it as his default browser, unless he consciously decides otherwise. This is certain to give Safari market dominance on Mac in the long term.
The development of Explorer Mac costs a lot of money. It doesn't serve a strategical purpose any more since there's no chance to beat Safari. Microsoft's decision to discontinue it is comprehensible, even though the actual process of discontinuation seems to have been lacking in delicacy.
Of course, back in the Browser Wars it was Microsoft that invented the strategy that now allows Safari to Throw Off the Yoke of the Usurper. This gives the whole event an element of Poetic Justice and makes it excellent storytelling material. All the stranger that it's being left out of the discussion altogether.
Besides, from a technical point of view the succession of Explorer Mac by Safari is good. Let's compare Explorer Windows to Explorer Mac and to Safari.
- Explorer Mac has more advanced CSS support while Explorer Windows has more advanced W3C DOM support. So the honours are roughly even.
- Safari also has more advanced CSS support than Explorer Windows. Besides, it lacks only a few W3C DOM functionalities that Explorer Windows does support. Finally, it is still in development while its rival is anything but. Safari shows every promise of becoming a far better browser than Explorer 6.
So a year from now we can code sites that, with all due respect to graceful degradation, will work W3C DOM miracles on any platform, but will look better on Mac.
We can even show the difference: "Look, here's the site on Windows, and here it is on Mac. You see?" This allows us to make our point without mentioning all the tricky bits about browser compatibility and standards support. That's good, since these bits tend to confuse people ("what's a browser, anyway?").
This strategy might give Apple a little support in its own battle with Microsoft. I feel we owe it something for giving us Safari and for being very open for suggestions from the web development community. In the long run such exchanges of gallantry might lead to an alliance.
Since the succession is a good thing for us web developers, I propose another role for Explorer Mac: that of Royal Sacrifice. The king must die so that the land may live.
The old king, once great and mighty but now becoming somewhat stiff of leg, is sacrificed by the new king, who's young and strong and shows plenty of promise to withstand the Usurper. This allows the old king to go out in a blaze of glory and the land to retain its fruitfulness. It's an occasion for mourning, but also for new hope.
Will the Royal Sacrifice be accepted? Only with the support of the Mac nobility can Safari truly become King. Therefore I hope prominent Mac lovers will recognize sacrifice and succession as legitimate and will throw the full force of their coding abilities and opinion leadership behind the new king.
Incidentally, this would be the first orderly succession of one king by another in the entire history of browser land. It's high time we devise a proper protocol for royal succession. Until now it's been a bloody mess.
Now that's a story worth telling, but only to a Mac audience. For general purposes Explorer Mac remains the Innocent Victim and Safari the browser that Throws Off the Yoke.
A course of action
So a new King of Mac has arisen. On Windows, though, the Senile Evil Dinosaur Usurper still rules. It must go.
The lack of advanced CSS support and a general uneasiness about Microsoft's domineering position gives us the motive. The four to six years time lag before Explorer 7 arrives in strength gives us the opportunity. But what about the means?
Many web developers want to convince end users to install another browser instead of Explorer by reverently reciting the entire corpus of web standards. Some vaguely assume end users will eventually come to see the light by themselves.
Unfortunately these strategies won't work. End users are not interested in browsers, or in web standards. Most of them aren't sure what a browser is and don't recognize a web standard even when it's being blatantly disregarded. Besides, they don't want to install anything because installing things is a technical job and they aren't technical people.
The solution to this apparent dilemma is to convince other people to convince the end users for us. That's a tough job, but not a totally impossible one.
What people? I'm thinking of two main groups:
- People who install browsers for other people, for instance system administrators or ISP's.
- The mass media (however you want to define them).
As to the first group, it is largely concerned with security. Since I don't know anything about security I hope that someone who's versed in these matters will give us a good explanation, or propose a strategy.
Influencing the mass media can just barely be done, I think, though the result is anything but certain. Even if our strategy works perfectly, the stories in the media will influence only a minority of end users, and only at the moment they buy a new computer.
If it helps so little, why embark on this course of action at all? Becasue it's the only thing we can do. It's either try this or continue shaking our fists at people and accomplishing absolutely nothing.
Browser Wars II: The Saga Continues
How do we influence the mass media? By telling a moving story of valiant honour and chilling evil based on the highly succesful "Browser Wars" series. Media might run our story occasionally because their audience vaguely remembers the first part of the series.
The heroic saga of Third Era history is the the last browser market report anyone has ever read. Therefore the story we're creating should be its logical sequel. It should use the Browser Wars as a frame of reference, and not later, more technical developments.
Keep it simple. No web standards, please. We'd lose our audience faster than we could say "browser incompatibility".
With all this in mind, let's draft a press release:
[In fact they don't show anything of that kind, but let's skilfully pretend they do]
Microsoft is Brought to Poetic Justice
Recently, Microsoft lost the Apple Macintosh market at one stroke. Apple's own Safari browser will be installed on any new Mac computer and will thus replace Microsoft's IE within the next year. This is the very strategy the Redmond Giant won the Browser Wars with.
In reaction, Microsoft brutally terminated its Macintosh version of Internet Explorer, indicating that it sees no chance of regaining the Mac market.
[Remember to give Explorer Mac its correct role. Mac audience: Royal Sacrifice. General audience: Innocent Victim]
Microsoft is Evil
The plans of the software giant show that a new version of Explorer on Windows will be released only in 2005 and will be tied hand and foot to Microsoft's new OS instead of being generally available for downloading.
Therefore end users are stuck with Explorer 6 for the next few years and have to spend a lot of money to upgrade their browser afterwards.
[Sure, I said time and again that end users don't care about browsers, but this is propaganda we're writing]
Explorer is a Dinosaur
Netscape 4's code engine was bad and could not be updated. It held back the further development of the WWW because it could not support exciting new technologies. This was one of the reasons it lost the Browser Wars.
Web developers are increasingly of the opinion that history will repeat itself. Contrary to all other Web browsers, Explorer hasn't been updated since the Browser Wars. In fact, it may be impossible to update.
Explorer cannot support today's technology, or even yesterday's, because of the limitations of its code engine. So it moves towards the position Netscape 4 once held: the most serious liability in Web design and a prospective loser.
[A nice bit of attribute transfer, that last sentence. The "prospective loser" is Netscape 4, so we don't lie, but our readers will project it on Explorer]
Fortunately, there is a viable alternative...
But here we break off in mid-sentence and confusion.
A role in search of an actor
Currently, the next sentence runs "Fortunately, there are viable alternatives in browsers like Safari, Mozilla and Opera."
That sentence doesn't work. It is too complicated and it doesn't fit the template of the Browser Wars series.
The Browser Wars are rememberd because of the easily grasped, bipolar nature of the story. There was Explorer, there was Netscape, and they were locked in Eternal Struggle. This kept the story simple and reminded people of other bipolar struggles with Good vs. Evil overtones in recent world history.
This powerful concept will work for us, if we satisfy its needs. The sequel we're writing needs one browser as the Usurper's opponent, one browser to play the role of Viable Alternative. Not three.
Safari cannot be the Viable Alternative because it's not a Windows browser. Then who shall we cast for the role? The Legitimate Exile or the Sympathetic Outsider?
The Project in trouble
The Mozilla Project is in serious trouble. It has been ready for prime time for over a year now, but except for an increasingly meaningless string of new releases nothing seems to happen.
Recently it performed a curious sketch that reveals the roots of its trouble. The Project announced that it was in the process of changing the names of all its products. Or, well, maybe just some of its products, and in any case some names turn out to be copyrighted so they have to be changed all over again. Besides, Mozilla itself will be renamed in the near future, oh no, wait a minute, it won't.
In translation, this means the Project has lost its role and is frantically groping for a new one. It used to be the Legitimate Exile, gathering strength in the shadows while waiting for the Ally Of Legitimacy to raise the flag of rebellion.
To AOL the Project has always been a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Microsoft. Recently it spent the chip when it struck a deal. AOL got some pocket change and the right to use Explorer for the proverbial seven years of servitude. In return, it completely bound itself to Microsoft's emerging strategy.
This leaves the Project without powerful support. Even worse, its traditional role of Legitimate Exile is eroding rapidly. The wait simply took too long. Except for a small kernel of die-hard supporters people lost interest, especially when Mozilla 1.0 was released but the Legitimate Exile only showed interest in technical intricacies, not in returning to its rightful place.
Its self-respect hit an all time low when Apple's Safari browser turned out to use not venerable Mozilla but upstart Konqueror as its code engine because of its small size. You can call Mozilla a lot of things, but not small.
Mozilla should lose weight and change roles. Viable Alternative is a perfect fit. Mozilla is technically more than adequate and it descends from a long line of kings.
The Project needs to get its act together, though. No more rehearsing for the Navel Gazing Split Personality Idiot Savant role. No more antique cars stuffed with vague X-technologies nobody understands anyway. And no, not even one web standard. The Project should put Mozilla on a strict diet and star it as the Viable Alternative to the Senile Evil Dinosaur Usurper in the epic multimedial co-production "Browser Wars II: The Saga Continues".
If the Project does so, it has a future. If it doesn't, it will sink further into obscurity and silly names.
Three is a crowd
Contrary to the Project's, Opera's problems are not of its own making. Its marketing has always been to the point and effective. It can keep up with the changing times, too. Opera 7 has implemented the reflowing of pages and thus support for the W3C DOM.
Without this crucial step it would be out of the race already. Nonetheless its position remains uncertain. It is seriously affected by the changing roles throughout browser land.
During the Browser Wars Opera was the Sympathetic Outsider. This is quite an achievement. It performed in a drama written for two players, not three, and kept itself in the public eye despite not being a part of the bipolar story structure. The price it had to pay was playing the Harmless Cutie instead of a serious competitor.
Unfortunately for Opera, though, the Sympathetic Outsider role seems to have been scratched from the script.
In Part I, three was already a crowd. Four actors is certainly too much, and currently Opera would be the fourth actor, not the third one. The third actor is Safari. "There's Explorer and Mozilla locked in Eternal Struggle. There's Safari, which has already Thrown Off the Usurper's yoke. Oh yes, and there's Opera." Won't work.
Opera would be a presentable Viable Alternative, but it is distinctly second choice after Mozilla, both technically and in purity of descent. It will be allowed to play the role only if the Project opts for Idiot Savant.
The future looks distinctly bleak for Opera. Nonetheless, it has time and again shown its resourcefulness and flexibility. Despite all prophecies of doom it still shows no signs of retiring from the race. It may survive, even though it has to be content with being backup Viable Alternative.
To be continued
That's where we stand now. Our prospective Viable Alternative is wasting time in wholesale lots. We cannot finish our press release. We cannot start influencing the mass media yet.
Fortunately we still have plenty of time, thanks to Microsoft's Snail Pace. To make our deadline we should have a Viable Alternative ready by the end of this year, and use 2004 for spreading the story to a general audience. That's a manageable time frame.
While waiting, remember the fundamental laws of "Browser Wars II":
- Stick to the template. The Browser Wars series is a Good vs. Evil struggle between exactly two browsers. Keep the story simple.
- End users don't care about browsers. That's the main problem. Feel free to tell the horrid story of the Tied Browser in the name of the end user, but remember it is propaganda, not truth.
- No web standards. Ever. They're for our own internal use, not for external communication.
Now let the Saga Continue.