FireFox is 5 Years Old

TechRadar has a great appreciation article for the 5 year birthday of the Firefox browser. Here is the best part:

We’re celebrating the anniversary of two big events this week: the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the birth of Firefox. We’ll remember one of them as bringing freedom to millions and dealing a hammer blow to a repressive regime, and we’ll remember the other as that thing where Bono pranced around in front of the Brandenburg Gate. If it weren’t for Firefox, you’d be reading this in IE6 – the software equivalent of the horrible Trabants the East Germans tooled around in before the Wall came down.

I chuckled at the clever reversal with Redmond becoming the “repressive regime”.

This  story certainly  gets the impact of Firefox but does not give enough credit to the work of Opera in the same time interval. But the author certainly minces no words about the ruthlessness of Redmond.  Having overthrown Netscape, Microsoft downsized its 1000 person staff for developing IE to the fraction of personnel needed to maintain just the security features of IE6 – no new browser features for over 5 years. Only when Firefox started to take big chunks of market share, did Microsoft relent and start to make slow, but “carefully chosen” improvements to IE. I say carefully chosen because long awaited CSS, DOM, JavaScript standards, promised over ten years ago for IE5 have still to be made by Microsoft. For example, IE passes less than 50% of the W3C CSS browser tests that the other browsers score over 90% on.

And that is the sticking point confronting IT and society in general today. Joseph Schumpeter’s monopolists do indeed sew the seeds of their own destruction … but what Joe left out is that correction for monopoly market shortcomings  often takes a long time. Look at the browser market: for 5 years Firefox and Opera [and now Apple Safari and Google Chrome] have had superior browsers to Microsoft IE. The current situation where Firefox and Opera offer at least 3 times the speed; more OS support, more new themes, extensions, and gestures features; and most important of all, more W3C and other Web standards support than IE – they are clearly better browsers. Yet all four superior browsers have failed to wrest more than 35%  share from IE which is still the browser leader by 60-65%.

The Crux of the Problem – DeFacto Desktop Standards

The crux of the problem is that with a 90% desktop OS monopoly and a 65% browser monopoly , Microsoft expects to be able to set defacto standards for how applications run on notebooks and desktops. I have talked with many Microsoft managers and reps and this is implicit in their attitudes on a whole range of software standards not just Web standards. But with Microsoft owning monopolies on the desktop OS and still in the browser market they, Redmond, should be able to shape if not pick and choose which Web standards they support. So its NO for SVG and E4X but YES for XSLT but NO for JPEG2000 and XForms 2; its very slow for complete DOM, CSS, JavaSCript compliance; but MAYBE for selected parts of HTML5;  its NO for deprecation of proprietary Microsoft extensions of HTML, JavaScript, and DOM [the only significant surviving proprietary Web extensions

Microsoft at best has been ambivalent about its support of the Web . Back in the early 1990's Bill Gates tried to setup a rival MSN Internet network. It used Windows 95 to preferentially access the the MSN+McCaw network. It failed. Since then Microsoft has fallen victim to scourge of Web  borne virus and trojan attacks, has stopped all developments on its browser for 5 years, and now is creating rival technologies to Flash+SVG, JavaScript, XML/XForms and HTML5. All of these technologies are designed to make certain that programs run best not in browsers a la SaaS or Web 2.0  but in Windows clients and servers. So currently Web standards compliance is "go very slow "  or "we will pick and choose" as in the case of HTML5 and other W3C standards. Worse,  many Web innovations such as Tabs, gestures,  and bitmap+vector graphics are in limbo. Very few standards are being proposed when Redmond retains the defacto "right of refusal". By going slow and being obstreperous about Web standards - Microsoft is surely controlling the pace  and direction of Web devlopment. All of this is surely powered by its very slowly dwindling IE browser monopoly despite having the worst browser by far in the market  [and getting even worse as JavaSCript performance in Firefox and Chrome has rapidly improved over 2009].

But what makes the situation even more dysfunctional,   no major IT player has dared to challenge this negative leadership. Not Apple, Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM nor Intel. Okay -one vendor, Google. Google is slowly but surely, piece by Google API piece, establishing on the Web a set of must have/must use free and often Open Source APIs that are becoming Web standards as vital as the Windows API on the desktop. Look at Google Maps, Google Translate, Google Go and Google Android as a few examples.

So as the desktop , Mobile and Web APIs rush towards convergence and great interdependence look who is calling the shots on the standards for servers, then the  desktop, then on the Web, and finally on the mobile/gadget markets. IBM and Oracle are still kings of the backend with SAP and Microsoft contenders, but on the frontend [desktop, Web and Mobile] its a race between Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Everybody else will be vassals like AMD, Intel, Dell, HP, Acer et alia in the PC marketplace.  And to think, ten years ago all of this could have been settled if the Antitrust Remedy for Microsoft had been that Microsoft had to divest itself of its IE and IIS servers and stay out of the Web  market for eight years. Like the break up of AT&T 15 years before it would have been neat, simple and best for Business.