Browsing vs. running applications
Here's what the difference between the companies boils down to: Microsoft is focusing on today's Web, and the rivals are focusing on tomorrow's.
The Internet is growing from a Web made of static pages to be read with links to be clicked into a Web that also includes applications that perform computational tasks and that people interact with. In other words, browsers now have to process data as well as load pages. Microsoft's dominant share--67 percent according to Net Applications' figures--reflects the more mainstream world, and the challengers are aiming for where they think the mainstream will be going.
A horse race
"It was WebKit I think that really ignited the competition," Beltzner said. "Having somebody else play along (gave us) a way of us questioning our own assumptions about whether we have done the best we can do." And Chrome is "certainly keeping the pressure on."
Microsoft defends its priorities. "We're certainly aware of what the other browsers are doing," said IE senior director Amy Barzdukas. "Browser makers need to be sensitive not just to the cutting edge but to people who use the Web."
Microsoft also has another answer for those who want to build elaborate Web applications: its Silverlight software, version 3 of which the company detailed Wednesday. Silverlight competes most directly with Adobe Systems' Flash, the dominant browser plug-in used to provide applications with a lot of pizzazz.
"All it took was a little competition to get other companies focusing on this problem," Fisher said. At some point, "Suddenly this problem won't be a problem anymore and we can move on to the next issue."