Browser wars, part IV

Yahoo seemed to be taking a page from an old 20th century playbook last week when it introduced Axis, its browser/search hybrid app for iOS. And there’s a rumor circulating that Facebook might be looking at acquiring Opera. Does this mean we’re about to enter “Browser Wars, Part IV?”

Eighteen months ago, I wrote a short piece of analysis arguing that browsers don’t matter anymore. My thesis was that major technology platform providers like Google, Apple and Facebook weren’t using browsers as a key distribution channel or developer strategy for their APIs. Browsers might still play a role, I wrote, by offering a development platform to help alleviate fragmented operating system markets like mobile phones and connected TVs.

Has much changed since then? Microsoft has lost a little market share in desktop browsers, but the most established market tracker still has Explorer with a 30-point lead over Firefox and Chrome. OS and browser are tightly integrated for mobile phones and tablets, and we might even see that pattern re-emerge in desktop operating environments.

Yahoo’s chances

So what is Yahoo trying to accomplish? Shouldn’t the troubled portal be concentrating its allegedly mobile-first strategy on apps that have a chance? Like, for instance, its Livestand newsreader? Oh wait, it just killed Livestand.

Axis is getting surprisingly good reviews. (So did Livestand.) But when implemented as an app for iOS, it’s less a full browser than a skin on Apple Safari. Axis uses Safari’s rendering engine, and doesn’t override Safari when other browser-related functions come into play, like posting updates or photos. Axis is an intriguing search and web navigation app that presents page images rather than links as results, remembers a user’s search history across devices and enables a personal home page.

Axis gives a slick demo on an iPad. But page thumbnails are an inefficient way to display search results on smartphone screens, and there’s no evidence that Yahoo is tuning results for mobile use by, for example, re-ordering results based on GPS data. The success of Axis will depend on whether users perceive its approach to be fun or offering utility. Axis may be fun to use on a tablet, but it doesn’t stack up well against recent social search initiatives from Microsoft or Google easy-answer utility.

Surprisingly, although Yahoo is talking about the potential of Axis advertising, it’s not showing any ads or paid search results right now. That’s odd, since tablet ads might command a premium for their novelty and potentially rich interaction. Yahoo’s leaving money on the table and potentially taking away revenue opportunities for Microsoft, its search partner.

Browsers as platforms

If Axis catches on, it might increase usage of Yahoo search and content. But Yahoo appears to have wisely abandoned any notions about being a technology platform provider. It is not using Axis as a package of APIs connected to Yahoo services upon which third-party developers build apps.

Facebook is a another story entirely. I’ve written before about why Facebook would like to deploy its platform on devices via a somewhat site-centric HTML5 strategy, to ease multiple-OS support and get around app store restrictions. Its intent to buy Instagram and its own Camera app probably indicates bridge tactics toward that longer-term strategy.

Right now, Facebook mobile performance is poor. For security reasons, Apple restricts how apps use Safari’s rendering and JavaScript engines. Safari and other browsers use just-in-time compiling that enables applications to run faster by optimizing on-the-fly for particular hardware configurations. Opera also relies on a fast rendering engine and server-side caching for performance. Facebook might indeed benefit from access to those kinds of technologies. If it does acquire or build a browser, though, Facebook should “disguise” it as a speedy app, rather than trying to steal usage away from the device’s default browser.

Question of the week

Does Facebook need to own a browser?
Relevant Analyst
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David Card

VP Research Gigaom Research

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3 Comments Subscribers to comment
  1. Matthew Graczyk Wednesday, May 30, 2012

    Yahoo!’s new Axis browser is one of the most innovative evolutions in the browser market. It isn’t a contender for the desktop market but shines in iOS, where the Axis app is WAY faster/better than Safari for iPhones and iPads. It’s bookmarking functionality doesn’t compare to iCrumz.com but a valiant effort!

    1. Axis definitely looks good on an iPad. But do you really like thumbnails as your primary search results on a small screen? To each his own. Definitely innovative.

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