A ferocious free-for-all among the top web browsers
The landscape is evolving and you can either change with it or be left behind. This is the position browser makers find themselves in as cloud computing and touch interfaces take center stage, as Windows 8 with its vastly overhauled UI continues to wiggle into more homes and businesses around the world, and as web developers push increasing amounts of rich content at site visitors.
Note: This article was originally featured in the December 2013 issue of the magazine.
Mozilla's Firefox started out as the little browser that could and has since grown into a full-fledged market force in its own right. But behind Mozilla's pretty little Persona-sporting smile lies a terrible secret – a secret that's been there almost from the beginning. A secret that can sometimes cripple the otherwise spunky browser. You see, just like poor old confused Aunt Dorothy, Firefox has a memory leak. That's not news. What is news is the fact that Mozilla might finally be stepping up to the plate to fix the problem.
In the gaming world it’s quite typical for a developer to tell the media they will ship “when it’s ready”, but another delay over at the Mozilla campus has pushed the Firefox 4 release out at least another month, and will likely pit the new browser up against some stiff competition from Internet Explorer 9 and Chrome 10 by the time it’s released. According to Christian Legnittom, Manager of Firefox releases, the final planned beta probably won’t ship for several more days while they try to iron out at least five major bugs on their “hard” blocker list.
Google debuted its open, royalty-free WebM video format last month. Based on the open-source V8 video codec, WebM is meant as a challenger to the propriety H.264 video codec, which threatens to saddle web video with hefty licensing fees and royalties.
Google, Opera and Mozilla are easily its most prominent backers, with the trio pledging WebM support in their respective browsers. As for the rival camp, Apple's weight is firmly behind H.264, whereas another important patron, Microsoft, has decided to support both H.264 and WebM beginning with IE9.
“Like every codec, WebM is not immune to change; the difference in our project is that the improvements are publicly visible, and compatibility and implementation issues can be worked through in an open forum,” Jim Bankoski, Google's Codec Engineering Manager, wrote in a blog post.
At Microsoft’s Professional Developers Conference the Redmond giant showed off an early build of Internet Explorer 9 complete with GPU acceleration. Not to be outclassed, Mozilla has indicated they too are working on GPU acceleration for the popular Firefox browser. After the Microsoft demo, Mozilla Director of Developer Relations, Chris Blizzard tweeted, “Interesting that we're doing Direct2D support in Firefox as well - I'll bet we'll ship it first. :)"
Later, Firefox developer Bas Schouten wrote about the addition of Direct2D to the browser. He said the browser wouldn’t look much different, but rendering should be much improved. Schouten provided benchmark data for Direct2D rendering compared to standard Windows Graphic Device Interface (GDI). While some sites showed little difference, several saw dramatic reduction in rendering times. Hopefully we’ll see this technology sooner rather than later. However, there are currently no ship dates for either product.
By 1996, Netscape had captured 80% market share. Development was rapid, seeing the incorporation of CSS and table layout features as time passed. Microsoft put out the first version of Internet Explorer a year after Netscape, but found little success.
The good times couldn’t last forever, though. Microsoft released IE 4 in 1998. Thanks to some advanced features, IE captured the number one spot in only 12 months. A series of poor decisions left the Netscape browser in the hands of AOL, and we all know how that went. Development slowed, and the once great browser languished. Support was finally completely dropped in 2008.
Amid all the dark times, one great thing did happen with Netscape. The browser code was open-sourced in February 1998. It wouldn’t become apparent until years later how well that worked out for the web. From Netscape, the Mozilla Foundation built Firefox. Many feel that the Firefox browser is the best available, and it enjoys a healthy 27% market share. Let’s all have a moment of silence to remember Netscape on, this, its 15th birthday. Was Netscape your first browser? Any fond memories of those dial-up days?
SkipScreen allows users to bypass the tedious wait times on sharing sites like MediaFire and Rapidshare. This ingenious little add-on will automatically click through whatever hoops necessary to get to the actual download page. Then it will extract and execute the code for the download link. This is how it bypasses those screens that force you to wait ‘X’ seconds, unless you register.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote SkipScreen’s response. They rightly pointed out that the add-on doesn’t technically bypass any screens. It just automates the process of finding a download link. The EFF also pointed out that SkipScreen does not present content from another site. MediaFire has probably just brought more attention to SkipScreen by going through with this complaint. Apparently, they’ve never heard of the Streisand Effect. So… the add-on is still available on the Mozilla site, get it here.
Steve Ballmer recently sat down with Techcrunch to wax philosophical about browsers and their connection to the operating system. Ballmer was asked about the legal disputes over Internet Explorer bundling. Without missing a beat, he called the notion that operating systems can be independent of internet access “not a sensible concept”.
Ballmer went on to take a few swings at the upcoming Chrome OS, saying, “If you remember, [Marc Andreessen] said something like, Windows will just be a poorly debugged set of device drivers running Netscape… Now, that’s kind of basically the attitude expressed in Chrome Browser, Chrome OS.” He also called Chrome’s browser market share a “rounding error”, but noted that Firefox is having a real impact. Ouch for Chrome.
When asked about how Microsoft will fare against the continued onslaught of competitors, he answered like he’d been thinking about it a lot. Ballmer explained that Macs attack from the top of the market, and PC sales have gained a bit on Macs in the last year as people shied away from more expensive options. He went on to say that Netbooks were going to continue to be a big part of the Windows strategy.
Ballmer clearly lays out a world in which competitors are sometimes operating systems, sometimes browsers, and in the future may even be both. Even with all these new threats, he seems pretty sure Microsoft will stay on top. What do you think?
It may even be possible to see support for WebGL in native WebKit browsers in as little as 6 months. Safari and Chrome are probably on the forefront of this technology, as they are based on WebKit. Firefox, while based on the Gecko engine, has an extension capable of displaying a WebGL 3D canvas. As for Internet Explorer, don’t hold your breath. Microsoft still has yet to implement HTML5, let alone upcoming technologies.