Are the Browser Wars Over?

Izenda Tech Blog logoThe headline on a recent article by ZDNet’s Ed Bott asks: Did the browser wars finally end in 2014?

The phrase “browser wars” even has its own page on Wikpedia, defined as “competition for dominance in the usage share of web browsers.”

It is no secret that the smartphone has overtaken the PC. For consumers, mobile web clients have become more important than desktop browsers. In January 2014, Americans for the first time used smartphones and tablet apps more than PCs to access the Internet. That number continues to grow.

So are the wars over?

Focus on Mobile

Apple’s priority is now on mobile Safari as it sells far more iPhones and iPads than iMacs or MacBooks hardware. Mozilla announced in early December that it will try to create an iOS browser for Apple’s mobile products. This move comes after Apple’s newest operating system, iOS8, finally gave competitors more flexibility to match Safari’s performance and the ability to customize on top of Safari’s browser core engine.

Google is, in Bott’s words, “using a move straight out of the Microsoft playbook from the 1990s.” Google is embedding its dominant free services, such as Google Search, Gmail and YouTube, and the increasingly used Google Drive into the Chrome browser. They also are adding functionality that requires Chrome apps, essentially “the same type of lock-in that Microsoft’s ActiveX enforced in the early days of the Web, minus the horrible security flaws,” Bott writes.

Microsoft’s New Browser

Where does Microsoft stand? The one-time dominant Internet Explorer browser has taken its lumps over the years, first from Firefox and then from Chrome, now the presumptive market leader. (While statistics vary on measuring browser popularity, Chrome became the No. 1 browser in the U.S. in 2013. StatCounter reported that Chrome surpassed Internet Explorer and Firefox combined in usage in 2014.)

Saddled with an unpopular Windows 8 operating system, Microsoft is moving in 2015 to Windows 10, losing some of its touchscreen functionality and features that were not a hit with users. The new Windows should more resemble the more user-friendly Windows 7. With that change, Microsoft also is rumored to be launching a new browser, code-named “Spartan.” Longtime Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley reported in September that the new browser will support extensions while others reported it will resemble a cross between Chrome and Firefox.

While those changes remain to be seen, Microsoft still struggles with a consequence from IE’s longtime popularity — maintaining compatability with its older versions. Microsoft plans to end support, including security updates, for all but the latest version of IE. However, that change is not effective until January 2016. Developers, in particular, have not been happy with having to add code to support these older versions. Bott points out some devlopers have built sites to run on Chrome or Safari, with no thought given to test beforehand on IE.

While mobile has somewhat changed the battlefield, Microsoft’s apparent move to actively compete more against Chrome and Firefox does signal that the battles will continue. Only on multiple fronts.