Today, the human experience of the Net stands at a crossroads, paths diverging into the future, and nobody knows which one we’ll be on in a year. A lot of people who will read this have the chance to make a difference in the decision. Let’s look at the options.
Evidence · To start, some selections from the newsflow:
Item: Mozilla has a foundation, with a couple million in the bank, a few smart people on payroll, and a ton of volunteer energy.
Item: There won’t be an Internet Explorer 7; if you want a better browser, you’ll have to pay for the next release of Windows, which is scheduled for release in 2005, and most corporate desktops won’t get there for a couple of years after that.
Item: I gave the opening keynote Tuesday at the Second Annual SVG Open conference. For those of you who haven’t got down with SVG, let me tell you it’s some drop-dead cool technology, and it neatly fills several huge holes in the on-screen ecosystem. It’s tearing up the markets where people live and work in graphic applications: math, cartography, and so on. But information workers won’t get a chance at it, because it ain’t in IE, and it ain’t going in any time soon (see above).
Item: We keep hearing that IE has 95% market share, 99%, is effectively universal, that we’re locked in Bill’s trunk. Except for, the proportion of IE users here at ongoing recently crossed the 60% line, heading down. I don’t want to brag, but I’m historically very mainstream: if you’d made a practice, over the last two or three decades, of betting on the technologies I was mixed up in, you would have made serious money (with the single exception of VRML, sigh).
Item: Safari is good. Opera is good. Mozilla is good. People who go there, don’t go back.
Item: A little bird told me that Union Bank of Switzerland standardized on Mozilla for its intranet.
Item: Richard Tallent, a working geek who really knows his shit, writes that even though his customers are in IE-land, he keeps up on Mozilla not only because he likes it but because Mozilla may outpace IE in the corporate world: most large companies may pass on Longhorn like they have for XP (not what I'd do, but I have no control), and IE6 is already gathering cobwebs. Even if they do move to Longhorn/IE7, it will take another five years. That's too long to depend on one stagnant browser.
Item: Explorer, writes Peter-Paul Koch at evolt.org, 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.
Fear the Longhorn · Let's think about the future a bit. Microsoft is making a big, big, big-time bet on Longhorn; read Scoble for a while if you’re not convinced. Nothing about it will be off-the-cuff or by-default or anything but carefully crafted to support Redmond’s business paradigm, which is total control of the desktop and 100% market share.
Do you think Longhorn’s browsing capability is going to be “just a browser,” a relatively transparent portal to the Net, a neutral text/pictures/hyperlinks conduit?
They tell us that Google will still run; but how many invitations to use MSN search will you have to fight through to get to it?
When you’re picking databases and webservers and business apps and search engines, do you want to have to pick the Microsoft offering if your people are to have a first-class user experience in the browser, because they’ve embraced-and-extended a few crucial Web standards?
I think that if we are so foolish as to sit here for the next three to five years waiting for the Longhorn Browsing Experience, we’ll really regret it; but we’ll deserve what we get.
Twenty-Year-Old History · I can hear the scoffers from here. Give up they say; we are locked in that trunk, the browser wars are so over, go find somewhere else to play.
But I have a long memory, and I keep thinking I’ve seen this movie before. Twenty-one years ago, I was working for a company called Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), then the world’s second-largest computer company. The radicals on the fringes of the industry were saying that Personal Computers were going to be the next big thing.
Except for, the IT departments of the world hated them; I can remember meetings at which executives flatly refused to approve desktop-computer budgets until the “micro-to-mainframe link” was quite a bit more robust.
Except for, the users just ignored ’em and bought PCs anyhow, lying and cheating and stealing to find money in their budgets, because they helped get the job done, and everybody’s job is important.
Ten-Year-Old History · In the early nineties, it was pretty obvious that the Internet was going to be the next big thing. Of course, all the prognosticators knew that the Information Superhighway was going to be either about Interactive Video (500 channels and a “buy” button), or about MSN/Blackbird, or about AOL’s walled garden. Then suddenly there’d been a million browser downloads at Netscape, then ten million, then a hundred million, and the software vendors who shipped browser interfaces (I was one of them) were nuking their competitors who weren’t there yet.
What It Comes Down To · People, on average and in the long term, aren’t stupid and aren’t patient and aren’t cowards. When there’s an obviously better way to get the job done, they go out and get it, and management can’t stop them, and Forrester and Gartner can’t stop them, and Accenture and EDS can’t stop them, and not even Microsoft can stop them.
This is Worth Doing · Competition is good: look at cellphones and cars and laptop computers and Chardonnays and expresso drinks. The browser is going to be how most of us interact with information for the foreseeable future, and if there’s a competitive browser ecosystem the quality of the experience is going to improve, in aggregate across the world, by an unimaginably large amount.
What Can We Do? · As the title says, the door is ajar: the incumbent is vulnerable, the alternatives are good and cheap. We just have to figure out how to get the alternatives in front of enough of the right people, and eventually just stand back and get out of the way.
Global 2000 · Every time some big company does a UBS and switches over to Mozilla, that’s huge, we need to get those stories out and let a little bit of herd instinct happening.
Grass-Roots · We in blogland could make a difference; here’s a modest proposal. Remember the old “Better in Netscape” and “Better in IE” buttons that people used to put on their websites? We need a tight, crisp “Use a Better Browser” button that has a mouse-over and is linked to a message somewhere, and the message is simple:
If you were looking at this in any browser but Microsoft Internet Explorer, it would look and run better and faster.
I’d put one of those buttons on ongoing if it was good. I bet a few thousand other bloggers would too, if a few of us took the lead.
When Do We Start? · Today. Why not?
Thanks to Bryan Bell for the graphic.