At the office, my cubicle colleague--a Firefox aficionado of long standing--smugly greeted the news by asking me what took so long. But rest assured this is no small concession.
The short answer is I don't have a lot of time or patience to fiddle around getting my different applications to play nice. So when forced to decide between competing software alternatives, yours truly has nearly always gone with the Microsoft offering.
Okay, I'm a wimp who takes the path of least resistance. I'm also less interested in creating the ultimate computing experience known to mankind than in making sure things work the way they should. That's the upside of sticking with a convicted predatory monopolist: You can assume a high degree of uniformity and application integration.
But after being tossed the gauntlet, I finally loaded Firefox at home. To my surprise, the product won me over in short order. I love its pop-up blocker, as well as the ease with which it accesses Really Simple Syndication feeds. I didn't use a stopwatch, but it loads fast and opens Web pages without a hitch.
I can't say the same about Internet Explorer (though Microsoft recently introduced a similar pop-up-blocking feature). Putting your finger on the reasons for the slow response is worthy of a Harvard Business study. In the meantime, it's useful to recall that Microsoft wasn't always so lethargic when it came to juicing up its Web browser technology.
Microsoft was a latecomer to the browser market and scrambled to catch up. Early on, the company stumbled and the first couple of attempts at a Web browser weren't any good. But this was a make-or-break proposition; Microsoft couldn't afford to let Netscape's Web browser displace Windows as the primary interface sitting on the computer between application developers and users.
By the third try, Internet Explorer had pulled even and later became the better Web-browsing application. The rest is history. Unfortunately for Web surfers, it's as if the calendar stopped in 1999.
Actually, that last statement is not fully accurate. There is one major change you can ascribe to Internet Explorer: The PC browser world is in much worse shape. Because management took so long to tackle Internet Explorer's security woes, Microsoft allowed virus writers to exploit vulnerabilities in the browser and wreak untold havoc on unsuspecting computer users.
I've always been impressed with how taken Microsoft's execs are with their technology. With a nearly $8 billion R&D budget, you would expect that much of what Microsoft cooks up in its labs should be quite good. So why hasn't the Web browser substantially advanced since the end of the browser wars?
Microsoft has a couple of pat answers. One is security.
"Customers have told us, 'Please try to minimize the number of nonsecurity changes...so we can deploy security patches without problems,'" said Gary Schare, who runs security product management for the company's Windows division.
And if it's not security, then it's Longhorn.
"Certainly, innovation in the browser is a high priority," according to Schare, who says the plan "is to innovate with the Longhorn release."
As a former president used to say, let me say this about that.
As a card-carrying member of Cynics International, I don't buy the argument that users will enjoy a wonderfully rich Web experience with Longhorn if only they'll wait just a little longer. The best "guesstimate" for Longhorn's already delayed arrival is 2006--at the earliest. Why Microsoft can't speed up its corporate metabolism to ship a better browser update before then remains a mystery.
On the security front, Microsoft has clearly had its hands full. Fixing the myriad holes in Windows and Internet Explorer is no small job. But why should that prevent Microsoft from offering sensible improvements to the browser, such as the inclusion of dynamically updated content from RSS feeds a la Firefox? Beats me.
Microsoft could also help out many developers by doing a better job offering support for CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets, a Web standard increasingly important to design professionals. The company's defenders argue that Internet Explorer was out first with a decent CSS implementation but that Microsoft was left in an awkward spot after the standards subsequently shifted. You couldn't easily muck with the early implementation because that would wreak havoc with tens of thousands of Web sites.
Microsoft will never admit this in public, but the core explanation is the absence of a hard-charging rival to keep it honest. Netscape's removal from center stage was the worst thing that ever happened to Internet Explorer because it allowed Microsoft to put Web browser development on cruise control.
Microsoft still holds more than 90 percent of the browser business, not to mention a desktop PC operating system monopoly that affords it special advantages against wannabe rivals. But for the first time in a long time Microsoft is losing share of the browser market--albeit only a couple of points so far--to the likes of Firefox, Safari and Opera--and maybe even Google in the not-too-distant future.
Maybe this only marks a brief interruption in the company's unparalleled dominance. Microsoft surely remains the odds-on favorite, but I have a hunch more and more computer Web surfers have become as fed up as I am with the status quo.
Charles Cooper is CNET News.com's executive editor of commentary.
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