April 23, 2014

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The Microsoft Case: The Second Browser War

Today I’ll wrap up my series of posts looking back at the Microsoft Case, by looking at the Second Browser War that is now heating up.

The First Browser War, of course, started in the mid-1990s with the rise of Netscape and its Navigator browser. Microsoft was slow to spot the importance the Web and raced to catch up. With version 3 of its Internet Explorer browser, released in 1996, Microsoft reached technical parity with Netscape. This was not enough to capture market share – most users stuck with the familiar Navigator – and Microsoft responded by adopting the tactics that provoked the antitrust case. With the help of these tactics, Microsoft won the first browser war, capturing the lion’s share of the browser market as Navigator was sold to AOL and then faded into obscurity.

On its way over the cliff, Netscape spun off an open source version of its browser, dubbing it Mozilla, after the original code name for Netscape’s browser. Over time, the Mozilla project released other software and renamed its browser as Mozilla Firefox. Microsoft, basking in its browser-war victory and high market share, moved its attention elsewhere as Firefox improved steadily. Now Firefox market share is around 15% and growing, and many commentators see Firefox as technically superior to current versions of Internet Explorer. Lately, Microsoft is paying renewed attention to Internet Explorer and the browser market. This may be the start of a Second Browser War.

It’s interesting to contrast the Second Browser War with the First. I see four main differences.

First, Firefox is an open-source project where Navigator was not. The impact of open source here is not in its zero price – in the First Browser War, both browsers had zero price – but in its organization. Firefox is developed and maintained by a loosely organized coalition of programmers, many of whom work for for-profit companies. There is also a central Mozilla organization, which has its own revenue stream (coming mostly from Google in exchange for Firefox driving search traffic to Google), but the central organization plays a much smaller role in browser development than Netscape did. Mozilla, not needing to pay all of its developers from browser revenue, has a much lower “burn rate” than Netscape did and is therefore much more resistant to attacks on its revenue stream. Indeed, the Firefox technology will survive, and maybe even prosper, even if the central organization is destroyed. In short, an open source competitor is much harder to kill.

The second difference is that this time Microsoft starts with most of the market share, whereas before it had very little. Market share tends to be stable – customers stick with the familiar, unless they have a good reason to switch – so the initial leader has a significant advantage. Microsoft might be able to win the Second Browser War, at least in a market-share sense, just by maintaining technical parity.

The third difference is that technology has advanced a lot in the intervening decade. One implication is that web-based applications are more widespread and practical than before. (But note that participants in the First Browser War probably overestimated the practicality of web-based apps.) This has to be a big issue for Microsoft – the rise of web-based apps reduce its Windows monopoly power – so if anything Microsoft has a stronger incentive to fight hard in the new browser war.

The final difference is that the Second Browser War will be fought in the shadow of the antitrust case. Microsoft will not use all the tactics it used last time but will probably focus more on technical innovation to produce a browser that is at least good enough that customers won’t switch to Firefox. If Firefox responds by innovating more itself, the result will be an innovation race that will benefit consumers.

The First Browser War brought a flood of innovation, along with some unsavory tactics. If the Second Browser War brings us the same kind of innovation, in a fair fight, we’ll all be better off, and the browsers of 2018 will be better than we expected.

Comments

  1. Dan Wallach says:

    Another big difference this time: it’s not just Microsoft vs. Mozilla. It’s really Microsoft vs. the standards process. To the extent that Microsoft implements the same standards and passes the same conformance tests that the other browsers do, that arguably only hurts Microsoft. Whereas, when Microsoft deviates from the standards, they give heartburn to web developers, but it’s demonstrably possible to implement support for multiple browsers (and server-side infrastructure is increasingly good at abstracting the details away, so many web developers never have to worry about it).

    If the end-game is that everybody’s browser has the same feature set, and thus web apps can be equally available on any platform, that’s a big problem for Microsoft, particularly outside of the corporate space, where people increasingly keep their life “in the cloud” rather than on their own computer.

  2. Fred von Lohmann says:

    Firefox has another important advantage, as well — it will be true to the desires of its users, rather than to its “corporate partners” or “business model.” For example, until pressed by competition from Firefox, Microsoft was reluctant to implement pop-up blocking. And today, as Firefox plug-ins implement things like improved torrent downloading and features for finding “unauthorized” content, Microsoft continues to shy away.

    So I don’t think you will ever see feature parity, in large part because MSFT (like any corporate software company) will shy away from “controversial” features, even if users want them.

    That’s the advantage of open source — true fidelity to user demand (because they can build it themselves if enough people want it).

  3. Glenn Palmer says:

    I keep hearing that firefox only has 15% marketshare, but on all the websites I have anything to do with 80+% of the visitors present a user agent of ‘navigator 6′. It seems unlikely that so many of our visitors would be tech-wienies, so me thinks the 15% figure is way out of date.

  4. Ron Nitz says:

    Ed, help me with my memory, but I remember paying for Netscape’s browser ($ 29.95 if I remember correctly). ISP’s began bundling Navigator for free if you did a one-year commitment to them but my memory is that Netscape was trying to leverage their monopoly position in browser market share (before IE 3) and transform it into a paid product. In fact, the reason I switched to IE (from Netscape) was not that it came with the OS, but that it was free and Netscape was not.

    I’m not a Microsoft fan, but I think you do your readers a disservice if you don’t note that if Microsoft had not predatorily made IE free, millions of consumers would have been (probably) paying for their browsers. Is this consumer benefit greater or less than the consumer cost of Microsoft’s monopoly. I don’t know the answer, but I think you should at least ask the question.

    P.S. I love your blog (this criticism notwithstanding)

  5. Ed Felten says:

    Ron,
    Netscape charged for a while, then they went free for noncommercial users, then free for everybody. Yes, free pricing was great for consumers.

    By the way, the government did not say that there was anything wrong with Microsoft giving away its browser. Some critics of Microsoft argued at the time that zero-pricing the browser was illegal predatory pricing, but the government did not make that assertion.

    And, anyway, what Microsoft wanted to do was not to charge for the operating system and give away the browser, but to charge a single price for the bundle of OS plus browser.

  6. Faramond says:

    “In short, an open source competitor is much harder to kill.”

    Yes, but open source projects often die of neglect. Resource-strapped developers lose interest or find themselves unable to update the product, and users move on.

    One should also keep in mind that only a limited degree of innovation is possible within the strictures of standards compliance. If one wishes to go beyond the abilities enabled by the standards, one will also have to go beyond the standards–which is precisely what Microsoft and Netscape did in the 1990s, and precisely what led to the ubiquitous “best viewed with” tagline.

  7. Michael Donnelly says:

    I think one big difference between the two “Browser Wars” here is the quality of the software and team that is opposite Microsoft.

    In my opinion, Netscape suffered from some of the same malaise that many see in Microsoft today: they were the monopoly and they were used to being the only big player. Netscape 4.0 was a big disappointment and the software never really felt sharp.

    I’ve been doing web development since the table tag and dealing with NN4 and newer was seriously unpleasant from 98 through the mid-2000′s. I hated fighting with its bugs. It was kludgy, slow, crashy, and generally not very good software. It used up a lot of team hours to support compatibility with any complex layout.

    I believe that “war” should have been won by Microsoft because their product was flat-out superior. We’ll never really know because of the antitrust stuff.

    Today’s “war” is much more exciting, as the Firefox team is a good deal more competent, in my opinion. Even implementing standards, there is a great deal of quality that can exist (or be absent) in software.

  8. QrazyQat says:

    I keep hearing that firefox only has 15% marketshare, but on all the websites I have anything to do with 80+% of the visitors present a user agent of ‘navigator 6′. It seems unlikely that so many of our visitors would be tech-wienies, so me thinks the 15% figure is way out of date.

    My web site, a plain vanilla science web site, gets about 24% Firefox/Mozilla/Netscape rate. Your experience sounds way high for whatever reason.

  9. Ed Felten says:

    This site gets 54% Firefox, 33% IE.

  10. Mark H says:

    “customers stick with the familiar”

    True, but I’m still not ‘familiar’ with IE7 – MS totally changed the look and feel. I guess if I used it more often… :P

    –mark

  11. cynic says:

    I use IE during the day to access this site simply because that is what my company has installed on my desktop, and I do not have admin privileges to install Firefox. At home I use Firefox. I suspect many others are like me, which leads me to my main point. One reason for IE’s prevalence is probably that large companies have bought into it. It is simply easier to support: if you’re going to provide your staff with a Windows desktop, and IE is already there with essentially no extra work…why go to the trouble of supporting Firefox?

    Every large company that I have worked with over the last 12 years has used IE as its standard, not because it’s better but because it’s easier. In fact, I think companies would far rather not have the extra features offered by other browsers — they make the corporate environment more heterogeneous and harder to support. (Who wants naughty users going about installing add-ons that may allow them to do un-corporate things?) Does this favor a Microsoft limited win of the browser wars? I suspect it does.

  12. Clint Olson says:

    By the way, cynic, you don’t actually need admin privileges to run Firefox. I highly recommend Firefox Portable, which allows the browser to run in a self-contained manner out of a single directory without installing anything. You can find it here:

    http://portableapps.com/apps/internet/firefox_portable

    Clint

  13. Clint Olson says:

    Oh, and once more, bull.

    > The First Browser War brought a flood of innovation, along with some unsavory tactics. If the Second Browser War brings us the same kind of innovation, in a fair fight, we’ll all be better off, and the browsers of 2018 will be better than we expected.

    The “First Browser War” brought comparatively little in the way of actual consumer-oriented innovation, and directly resulted in the years-long stagnation of the browser market. Many of the so-called innovations in this period were nonstandard HTML extensions like the blink and marquee tags — hardly something to be proud of.

    Not only that, but I believe that Microsoft is truly irrelevant in the current Browser War, as Firefox has shown a distinct willingness to innovate and cater to the needs of its users, competition or no. Indeed, given the open-source nature of Firefox, many of its developers *are* its users, so it would in all likelyhood continue this user-oriented approach even if all copies of IE were to cease to exist today. In the Second Browser War, Microsoft is strictly playing catch-up to those driving the real innovation.

    Clint

  14. scott s. says:

    One thing in the first browser war, was that IBM brought out the OS/2 platform with their home made browser, having more or less a Mosaic look and feel. My understanding is that IBM provided both technical and financial support to port the Netscape Navigator browser app and Communicator suite also including an smtp/pop email client and html authoring client. Communicator became the basis for Mozilla 1.0 on the OS/2 platform. I’m not sure how long IBM continued to provide support, but eventually separate thunderbird and firebird (trademark conflict forced name change to firefox) developments proceeded in parallel with Mozilla. I guess Mozilla now is SeaMonkey. I imagine many OS/2 refugees like me continued to use Mozilla after resigning to run Win98 or XP.

  15. Ablefable says:

    I like Opera… the browser. Mozilla is 2nd choice or used if Opera doesn’t support the website features. IE is used at work because I have no toher choice. I hate vista, I hate the new IE, I hate all the double and triple security features. I hate having to tell IE it’s okay to open the site I just tried to open. Microsoft is shooting itself, trying to tell customers what they want… not the other way around.
    I find Microsoft is analogeous to the US and its the War on Terror… If we give up liberty to acheive security we shall have neither.

  16. Steve Loughran says:

    Developer web sites of mine get about 60% FireFox, 30% IE, 10% other things -there’s a bit of an EU bias there. A UK community site I helped set up gets more IE than firefox customers, but there are more FireFox visitors than IE7.

    MS may have the defacto market share, and with Windows Update, the ability to roll out new versions for free/minimal effort. So the fact that even mass-market sites get more Firefox than IE7 users is an incredible success. What drove it? I like to think security. ActiveX and other aspects of IE make it fundamentally broken. For the webapp developer, its better to code for.

    however, in the enterprise, IE6 will be eternal. It costs to update sites to new browsers, and something that worked in IE6 can be left alone. My employers dont yet support IE7 though. When they do move off IE6, it may be to firefox, as they will get to control versions better, go multiplatform, and offer the dev teams a better experience.

  17. Carlos Gomez says:

    One of the things that allowed Microsoft to win the first browser war was that the availability of broadband connections were limited. A person with a new computer with the standard Windows OS installed would have IE as their browser and face a large long download over a slow dial-up connection. In the absence of a compelling reason to switch browsers, it’s easier to stick with IE.

    By the time of the AOL buyout of Netscape, Navigator had become a slow bloated browser, and there was no compelling reason to switch, and even with a physical installation disk in hand, it wasn’t clear that switching was advantageous.

    In today’s world, broadband has a large penetration, and the ability to just try out a browser through a download is not barred by the wait for a long download.

  18. Catty says:

    What really makes firefox work for me is NoScript, a few days ago I was using a browser without it and it was intolerable. No matter it’s other merits a browser must have NoScript before I find it usable, since an unfortunate number of sites require java-script, but browsing with java-script on is a dangerous nuisance.

    When I was working at a university years ago we had about 1/3 firefox/mozilla visits and 2/3 various IE flavors, with IE being the choice of staff/faculty and firefox what most student used. In general I have found the trend to be the older the person the more likely they are to use IE.

  19. Cyrus says:

    Being a provider of alternative development platforms (both desktop and browser plug-in via Silverlight) puts interesting pressure on Microsoft. They would be most profitable if people continued using Internet Explorer but Internet Explorer was still highly limited technologically (not supporting standards.) You can clearly see slow to non-existent progress with IE as a development platform – their javascript engine is years out-of-date, slow and buggy, and there is no indication that it is being significantly worked on.

    If Firefox is going to overtake Microsoft as the browser-of-choice by virtue of its increased capabilities, its going to have to convince developers to write standards-only web apps — apps which simply won’t work on Internet Explorer. If these apps are good enough, customers will switch to Firefox simply for the value added by the downstream applications. Microsoft is succeeding so far with its meme that lack of IE support will kill your product. However, increasingly I think you’ll be seeing web apps that support only Firefox (or Firefox+Safari+Opera), starting with apps for communities with very high alternative browser adoption already (developers, creative types, etc.) One killer Firefox-only app and you’ll start seeing the scales tip.