June 12, 2003

The End of History

Big news from the last couple of weeks I didn't cover: AOL/Netscape settles their antitrust suit with Microsoft by going to bed and Microsoft says goodbye to browser development.

Ok, so I'm exagerating the second story. What Microsoft really said was that IE 6SP1 would be the last standalone IE web browser, and that "further improvements to IE will require enhancements to the underlying OS". As has been commented on more eloquently by others (and here's another), presumably we can take this to mean that we will see no improvements in interface and standards support until the next WinOS (codenamed Longhorn) is released sometime in 2005, and then we'll have to wait for everyone to upgrade their OS.

On the Mac side of things, Microsoft has updated their browser, but only for users of MSN, Microsoft's competing AOL-like service. Mac IE 5.x already had better standards support than it's Windows big-brother, and the latest version of MSN Mac fixes many more CSS bugs. However, following the course charted by the Windows operating group, Microsoft will no longer develop a standalone browser for the Mac platform, ceding the field to Apple's well-received and soon to be released from beta Safari browser.

Clearly, Microsoft understands the competitive advantages of browser/OS bundling. Mac IE 5.x, rip.

Returning for a moment to the first story: AOL/Netscape sues Microsoft for exercising its monopolistic advantage in the browser wars, wins (sorta), and the spoils of victory are $750m, the right to use Windows Media (think rights managment), to open up AOL's IM userbase to MSN Messenger's, and finally the right to continue using the very Microsoft technology that sank Netscape in the Windows AOL client? Who's the winner and who's the loser?

And where does this leave AOL's Netscape?

AOL may keep a hand in the browser business, such as it is, but I'd venture to guess with this agreement that we won't see an official Gecko version of AOL for Windows users, which ultimately is bad for the consumer and the developer. A Mozilla-based AOL was the only real threat to browser monoculture—without competitive pressure, why would Microsoft feel the need to improve their browser?

Keeping their contribution to the Mozilla effort alive only as a warning to Microsoft, if not something to fall back on in the event Microsoft does, well, what Microsoft does, is what I think the old, technology-friendly AOL/Netscape would have done. The new content-friendly AOL Time Warner, however, may have entirely different ideas about where the money is, and where the money should go. Time will tell.

Lastly, here's an amusing idea of how the browser war could ultimately turn out from Brad Choate.

Posted by Lewis Francis at June 12, 2003 10:35 PM

Avowed bomb-thrower and Magnet/AKQA alumni John Nowicki responded on his blog:

Hate to say this Lewis, but really, so what?

The answer to this depends, at least in part, upon your worldview, whether you are happy with IE as it is now and is likely to be for the next few years, and on whether one is of the opinion that a monopoly is good or bad. ;)Seriously, look at this from the other end. "Browser Monoculture"? And, er...exactly how different is that from strict standards complaint browsers?The difference between a world in which open standards support eases development across platforms and one where a dominant platform increases the costs of supporting other platforms is akin to an agricultural environment where a dominant strain or crop (Potatoe: Win IE) crowds out competing crops (every other browser/platform/food crop), thus lowering diversity and raising the risks of catastrophic failure (black rot/feature famine: viral and other security threats).After all, isn't the point to hamstring everyone into a single standard of rendering, etc? Wasn't the point to avoid multiple competing browsers introducing "innovative features" that forced hacked code to work across platforms?The goal was never to "hamstring everyone", if anything, subscribing to open standards prevent hamstringing by discouraging use of platform-specific features that might prevent equal access to web content. Coding for standards has the effect of lowering the price of cross-platform development, meaning minority platforms are more likely to be supported. Well, an IE centric world does exactly the same thing as a strictly standards compliant one. In fact, it is, by definition standards compliant. MS standards, rather than W3C, but that's about it. Let's face facts, the W3C is no paragon of purity...it kowtows to the same software and business concerns as anyone else. It also is as top down, ignore the mainstream consensus and dictate from above as MS is (look at the arrogance of deprecating the iframe tag against popular will, and telling folks they can just spend a week hacking complex script and DOM stuff to replace the simple tag).The reason why I prefer a standards body like the W3C over the proven monopolist is the same reason I prefer a multi-party democracy over a dictatorship. The former may be less likely to make the trains run on time but a multi-party system is also less susceptible to abuse.

Of course, I know what you are really talking about here—one browser to bind them all makes it easier to code and test your sites. We want the same thing, I just want it for everybody. Fight the power, etc.

As for iframe deprecation, I'm not sure what you are talking about. Afaict, it's in the html 4.01 and xhtml 1.1 specs and is supported by all modern browsers.As to Mozilla...too bad. Really, come on. Open source is a crock. This ain't the dotcom heyday, when everyone who (however much I don't get how this is 'fun') hacked code for free for 'fun' also had cushy high paying gigs. Now there are coders who will work for food who've run out of unemployment checks, while businesses laugh all the way to the bank as they download Linux for free (and take the money and give a huge bonus...er...ooops, did I say that? :). I'll take MS, and 30,000+ paid employees with actual worthwhile stock options anyday.Sigh.

Worthwhile stock options, what are those? ;)

BTW, thanks for the plug, and regarding-you-know-what, all you have to do is ask, and, mebbe someday... ;)

Posted by: Lewis Francis at June 22, 2003 5:49 PM
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