What Does the Future Hold For Browsers?

1Executive Summary

Last week, Mozilla celebrated Firefox’s fifth birthday. It may seem hard to believe that it’s really been that long since Firefox first burst onto the browser scene, but it’s equally hard to overstate just how important Firefox has been for the development of the web.

While Internet Explorer is still the most popular browser, holding nearly two-thirds of the market, according to Net Applications, the browser market is much healthier than it was five years ago. There are several major desktop and mobile browsers in active development, notably IE, Firefox, the WebKit-based Apple Safari and Google Chrome, and Opera.

In the months ahead, the browser landscape is likely to see another round of serious shakeup, as these competitors — and other, smaller players — open new fronts in a second browser war. The key battlefields will be access to innovative new technologies, browser performance, security and privacy, and the ability to browse from multiple, diverse devices.

Standards Get Sexy

Contents:

1. Standards Get Sexy

2. The Chrome Effect

3. New Technologies Make Better Web Apps Possible

4. Browsers, Browsers Everywhere

5. Privacy and Security

6. Key Takeaways

As the first browser wars came to an end in 2004, Netscape was beaten and the browser market was dominated by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The aftermath of this war wasn’t just bad news for Netscape, though; it was bad news for consumers, too. Many features that were introduced for each browser were proprietary, non-standard additions to the HTML spec. Web sites ended up being “optimized” for either IE or Netscape, tying consumer use to specific site performance, rather than a browser’s other features and general web performance. Accessibility for those browsing with screen readers or on alternative devices was poor or non-existent.

However, out of the ashes of Netscape’s vanquished Navigator rose a plucky new open-source browser, Firefox. The 1.0 release of Firefox showed the world that it was possible to build a standalone browser that was relatively lightweight, fast, extensible and standards compliant — and it has gone from strength to strength since then. Today, all of the major vendors (including Microsoft) have a renewed focus on standards compliance, due in large part to Firefox’s pioneering leadership.

Bruce Lawson, open web evangelist for Opera Software, says that in the past five years, “the single greatest innovation has been the widespread adoption of web standards in today’s modern browsers. For the consumer, this means greater freedom of choice, because they can choose a browser based on its features rather than the non-choice that their favorite site only works in Netscape or their bank site only works in Internet Explorer.”

This shift towards standards-based development, and the availability of open-source standards-based rendering engines like WebKit and Gecko, has enabled a whole new crop of browsers to enter the browser market. Firefox led the way, but its approach has brought many new players onto the field.

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  1. It’s been interesting to me to watch how the mobile browser market has changed so much in the last two years.

    Two years ago the VAST majority of browsers were low-end WAP/Openwave type browsers, and even those on smartphones like Blackberries were atrocious. Fast-forward to today and the iPhone has pushed mobile browsing light years ahead in terms of industry expectations and what the consumer expects. Even feature-phone users have been benefitted using server-assisted browsers like Opera Mini which give a reasonable performance on devices that don’t have the on-board processing for decent rendering of web content.

    What I think is most interesting going forward is the potential for things like 3D and augmented reality based browsing on mobile. It will be very cool to see how these technologies evolve in the next two to four years.

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    1. agreed, the rate of change in mobile browsing has been phenomenal. Now I have an iphone, it’s hard to remember just how bad the browsers were on my previous phones.

      the next thing we need is faster data transmission. 3G is just too slow (and spotty) to be truly productive on the go, and isn’t fast enough to enable some of the really cool functionality that I can imagine.

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  2. The mobile browser scene can be summed up in two technologies: Webkit, the engine that powers the iPhone, Android and Palm’s webOS; and Opera. Opera Mobile is as sophisticated as Webkit, if not quite as finger friendly in operation.

    The mobile consumer has made it clear, they want a mobile web experience that rivals that of the desktop. Next year when Adobe gets Flash 10.1 in full release is going to be pivotal in the mobile browser scene.

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