What your web browser says about you
If you've never thought about the web program you use, it's time to pay attention – because technology's biggest names are fighting for supremacy of your screen
Wednesday 31 March 2010
Soon after Google released its Chrome web browser in 2008, the company's marketing team took a video camera to the streets of Manhattan to ask passers-by what they thought a browser actually was. Despite living in one of the world's most wired cities, most of the interviewees who appeared in the subsequent viral video had no idea. More recently, Mozilla, creators of the Firefox browser, surveyed citizens of six European countries on the subject. A third of them thought a browser was the same thing as a search engine. In fact, your browser is the software on which you view and surf the internet, which makes it one of the most important programmes on your computer. And if you didn't know that, then you probably also didn't know that you had a choice of browsers besides Microsoft's market-leading Internet Explorer – among them Chrome and Firefox.
"A browser is like the suspension in your car," explains John Lilly, CEO of Mozilla. "The suspension mediates the relationship between you and the road; it can pass on the bumps quite stiffly or it can soften them. A browser alters the internet's performance in the same way." Lilly was recently in Europe helping to raise awareness of his and other browsers, just as Microsoft began to offer European Windows users a "browser ballot box": when they connect to the internet, up to 200 million PC users in selected countries, including the UK, may now find a pop-up on their screen, offering them a selection of free, alternative browsers to try instead of their computer's native Internet Explorer.
Both Firefox and Chrome stand to benefit from the initiative, which began at the end of February, and is part of a settlement agreed between Microsoft and the European Commission following a lengthy anti-trust dispute. Explorer's dominance (it remains the default browser for more than 60 per cent of web users worldwide) came not as a result of its quality, but because it is the default browser on Windows PCs. At the moment, Firefox is the world's second-most-popular browser, with around 25 per cent of the market – approximately 370m users – while Chrome has just over 5 per cent.
Lilly, however, claims he is more interested in raising awareness than in gaining market share for Mozilla. A strange philosophy for a CEO, you might think, but the Mozilla Corporation is part of the Mozilla Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation dedicated solely to "[promoting] choice and innovation on the internet". The company's staff of 270 is augmented by an army of volunteer programmers from all over the world, who contribute more than a third of Firefox's features. "Nobody ever expected Firefox to get 10 per cent of the market, let alone 25," says Lilly.
"We just wanted to make sure the internet was created by people, not by companies. Our message is that the choices you make about technology – be it your browser, phone or your favourite social network – all have implications regarding, say, where your data is stored and who knows what about you. It's pretty important to consider the technology that mediates your relationship with your doctor, or with your government."
Lilly, who is 38, joined Mozilla soon after the launch of Firefox in late 2004 (when the company also launched its free email software, Thunderbird). He became CEO four years later. Mozilla had been founded in the aftermath of the first so-called "browser war" of the 1990s, when Microsoft all-but destroyed Netscape Navigator, the original market leader and the first browser to reach a mass audience. Following its defeat, Netscape made public its browser's "Mozilla" source code for other web users, and the Mozilla organisation's founders – themselves former Netscape employees – decided to craft a successor to Navigator. After agreeing a deal (which still stands) to include a default Google search box in the browser, much of their funding came from Google, which sends revenue Mozilla's way in return for web traffic. Firefox was the result.
Microsoft had released its Windows XP operating system in 2001, and by 2006 it was on more than 400 million machines. XP's default browser was the famously clunky Internet Explorer 6 – and its vast, unwarranted popularity, says Lilly, was damaging to the maturation of the internet as a whole, discouraging developers from realising its true potential with their websites. "So many people still use IE6, and lots of companies have it built into their office IT systems," says Lilly. "I can't understand how they do it; it's a really horrible experience! Hopefully Microsoft's next browser will finally be to the same standard as everyone else, because that would stimulate another huge wave of creativity on the web."
The forthcoming Internet Explorer 9 is at least expected to be fast, unlike its predecessors, which uniformly lagged behind the competition in terms of page loading speeds. But users are already deserting Explorer in droves; its global market share has dropped from more than 75 per cent per cent two years ago to just over 60 per cent before the ballot roll-out. And thanks to the ballot, Microsoft is being forced to compete with other browsers on a more level playing field. Since the last week of February it has reportedly lost 1 per cent of UK users, and 2.5 per cent of French users.
Opera, the Norwegian company originally responsible for implementing the anti-trust suit, has benefited most from the ballot, claiming that downloads of its free browser have increased dramatically since the launch of the ballot box. Firefox, says Lilly, has also put on users, but "we already get 100,000 new users organically every day, so an extra 150,000 over a week or two is meaningful but not hugely important". Users who check the ballot box thoroughly will find a second page of seven browsers such as Avant, Flock and Slim, which even many tech-savvy users may not have heard of.
The key to the future of browsers may not be on desktops at all, but on mobile devices. In the next five years, in the view of many experts, more people will be connecting to their internet via their smartphones and tablets than via their desktops or laptops. This will doubtless break Microsoft's stranglehold, but it's not necessarily beneficial to browser diversity: most mobile devices come with default browsers, including a Google-made browser on phones that use the company's Android operating system. Safari is the default browser for iPhone (and for the iPad, which is due for release this week in the US), though Opera last week submitted its "Opera Mini" application to Apple for approval. Could Apple countenance a browser war on its own mobile devices?
Mozilla, meanwhile, is hard at work on a version of Firefox for Android, which, like its desktop version, will vary from Chrome in its vital statistics. Chrome, for instance, strips back the browser furniture to a bare minimum at the edges of the screen; its near invisibility as you surf reflects Google's ambitions to get everyone working continuously in the cloud – storing and interacting with their documents and data entirely online. Firefox, on the other hand, emphasises its users' security, which Lilly believes explains its popularity in privacy-conscious Europe (where it has an almost 40 per cent market share).
So which is better, the mighty Google's Chrome or the more modest Mozilla's Firefox? Most tech-watchers seem to agree they're the two finest browsers on the market. Chrome has been around for just 18 months, and only formally released a version for Macs earlier this year. Firefox's age and experience – Lilly says that Firefox 4 is expected next year – means it has a more extensive suite of extensions and add-ons that allow users to customise their browser to suit their needs. And of course, you may be concerned that Google already has too much of your personal information for comfort without installing the company's software on your computer.
In recent months, Google has gone on a grand marketing drive to promote its browser to the public. Mozilla, says Lilly, prefers a different approach. "For me advertising isn't very effective money spent. I'd rather participate in evangelism initiatives or give money to universities for programmes. That's baked into Mozilla: we're empowering people to change things, not to consume things. Market share is nice, but it's never been our main goal. Our goal is to help normal people figure out how to engage in the creation of the net. Whether you're in Tanzania or Thailand, you should understand that you don't have to wait for technology from Silicon Valley to change the web; you can do it yourself."
Web warriors: The top five portals
First included on Windows operating systems in 1995, the ugly Internet Explorer triumphed in the first "browser war" with Netscape Navigator, emerging as the world's most widely used web browser in 1999, a position it has retained ever since. After reaching a peak 95 per cent market share in the early 2000s, it now enjoys a more modest 60 per cent or thereabouts. Internet Explorer 8 – an improvement on clunky past efforts – was released last year.
Firefox was the phoenix that rose from the ashes of Netscape (in fact, it was originally to be named Phoenix), after the non-profit Mozilla Foundation decided to create a new browser as a rival to the potential Microsoft monopoly. Launched in November 2004 with additional funding from Google (which remains the browser's default search engine), it is still the world's second-most-popular browser. The "streamlined" Firefox 4 will be released next year.
Released in Autumn 2008, Google's browser was explicitly designed for life in the digital cloud. By stripping away the browser furniture to the very edges of the screen, Chrome makes it possible to conceive of a desktop that operates solely online – not least because Google recently launched Chrome OS, its suite of online applications designed to replace desktop software and data storage. In December, Chrome overtook Safari to become the world's third-most-popular browser.
First released by the Norwegian company of the same name in 1996, Opera is the only browser of European origin to appear in the top five browsers of the browser ballot box. It was also Opera's creators that initiated the anti-trust suit against Microsoft which led to the browser ballot. Though it has the smallest market share of the big five browsers on desktops, Opera's mobile version is much more successful and available on most smartphones. At time of writing, the company was yet to hear whether its iPhone app would be approved for release by Apple.
Apple's native web browser is more highly regarded since the launch of Safari 4 last year – though it's still much better in its original Mac version than on Windows. Thanks to the iPhone, for which it remains the default browser (and so far, the only browser worth the name for the device), it has also surged somewhat in popularity. Despite being overtaken by Chrome, its market share continues to increase at the expense of Internet Explorer.
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