Upstarts: Evolution creates second wave
By Paul Festa
Microsoft may have won the browser wars, but a recent proliferation of challengers suggests that the software empire has a long way to go before it wins the peace.
Many say that although the browser market for small networked devices was overhyped in the late '90s, the maturation of that market is finally starting to pay off for holdouts and newcomers alike. In addition to market leaders such as Microsoft and small Norwegian browser maker Opera Software, competitors include Access, InterNiche Technologies, Fusion, NexGen Software, NetClue, Openwave and QNX.
Such technical challenges present an opportunity for smaller companies, which also benefit from a troubled legal history that make cell phone manufacturers wary of alliances with Microsoft. That reluctance is even greater among the open-source software developers, many of whom are former Netscape Communications veterans who witnessed Microsoft's aggressive business tactics firsthand.
Industry analysts and others caution that all challengers face formidable obstacles against Microsoft in any new browser realm, given the company's history of positioning its products to get into new markets and conquer them.
"If you look at the space right now, the cell phone market is very fragmented," Gartenberg said. "There is some wariness of Microsoft, so there's definitely an opportunity for the Opera folks. But lots of great technology over the years has been better than what Microsoft ever produced, and the history books are full of where those companies ended up."
Because the source code behind the Mozilla browser is available to all, developers can freely adapt pieces and invent new applications for the software. Although popular functions may eventually be incorporated into the main browser, people using Mozilla are free to install or create extensions that customize their own versions.
By contrast, new functions are added to Internet Explorer based on Microsoft's schedule, providing little opportunity to tailor IE's one-size-fits-all approach, which may explain why the computer-using population has become blasé about the browser.
"When something new appears, the speed with which new tools can be created is very high," said Mitchell Baker, whose title is "chief lizard wrangler" for the Mozilla open-source project. "There's a framework for people to create Mozilla-based extensions. There's a way for Mozilla to look at these options, how does it work, and to say to our core users, 'Here's a blogging tool; if it looks good, go grab it.'"
Within the Mozilla universe alone, a plethora of projects are under way. These include K-Meleon, a Windows browser; Galeon and Epiphany, both GNOME (GNU Network Object Model Environment) browsers; and three recently released browsers for the Macintosh from AppMac. Camino, formerly known as Chimera, and Phoenix are meant to be smaller Windows browsers.
Netscape had broadened its business strategy to include corporate software and took the revolutionary step of releasing its proprietary browser code into an open-source development project. Mozilla set out to create a small browser that would be useful both on the desktop and in portable devices, an area in which Microsoft was thought to be vulnerable.
The task was easier said than done. After years of delays, Netscape came out with a Mozilla browser that critics called half-baked. Developers eventually improved the software but, in doing so, lost the initial goal of creating a lightweight browsing engine. Critics and project participants alike in recent months have said that Mozilla's rendering engine, called Gecko, is anything but slim, making it impractical for small devices.
However, what was bad for Netscape was a boon for the K Desktop Environment (KDE), the Unix-based open-source project whose KHTML browsing engine Apple chose for Safari. The selection also reinforced the fact that, despite Microsoft's overwhelming lead on the desktop, the Web offers no shortage of browser alternatives.
Still, even without deliberately trying to foil its browser competitors, Microsoft stands to do considerable damage to their chances by virtue of IE's popularity. That's because, although IE and other major browsers have vastly improved their adherence to industry standards as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), substantial discrepancies remain.
Because of IE's overwhelming share of the desktop market, Web authors often code their pages to work with IE, rather than with standards. That requires competing browsers to implement nonstandard workarounds for those IE-tailored pages--which, in turn, causes code bloat, the proliferation of underlying code in an application.
While KHTML is small, he warned, Apple's KHTML-based Safari browser--now in test stages--might grow once Apple engineers are able to properly render IE-specific pages.
Even so, others say it is too early to discount any contenders because today's browser market is a mixed bag. One free software advocate said entries such as KHTML and Mozilla's lightweight Phoenix have brightened a landscape otherwise darkened by a nonstandard monopoly.
"What if we had kept the Web open rather than having a zillion proprietary extensions from companies like Microsoft? Wouldn't a standards-compliant Web be a better place?" asked Bruce Perens, who helped develop the Debian version of Linux.
"We have a sick market--an unhealthy market--because most of the Web is browsed with a single vendor's browser. That's not a free market," he said. "A free market would have genuine competition. A free market would never have allowed a single vendor to become so dominant."
News.com's David Becker contributed to this report.