Browser Wars

The battle for the Web starts anew.

The fall of 2008 will be remembered as a good season for Web browsers. Beta versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer 8, Firefox 3.1 (“Shiretoko”), and the long-awaited Google Chrome were all released, completing the roster of big players. As we enter the next evolution of browsers, the competition will be fierce, but the innovations on the horizon promise to radically change our online experience.

Browsers are poised to become operating systems unto themselves. The creators of this next generation are at work on true software platforms that are flexible, powerful, and capable of running complex applications from the Internet. Javascript interpreters will be the new browser engines, so tech shops are simultaneously tackling the required uptick in performance. These are ambitious tasks.

Opera and Safari used to be the speed masters of the browser universe because of their fast rendering technology. Performance and rendering times are still crucial to the Web experience, but that’s changing because it’s on everyone’s radar. Now the way to differentiate your browser speed from another’s is to focus on applications: Ajax, HTML 5, or other technologies where the browser cranks tons of Javascript code to continuously manipulate structure and content.

Microsoft IE looks well-positioned in the race. Internet Explorer 8.1 might not be as fast as others right now, but script performance improvements are planned for future beta releases. Microsoft is also playing the Internet applications game with other longer-term solutions and technologies like the XAML/WPF framework and Silverlight.

The bar is raised for technologists too. If the next suite of browsers is to satisfy on an operating system level, users need customization and control over their environment through modules and multifunctions. The XUL framework, Gecko, has already put Mozilla ahead of the pack in this category. Users can customize their software experience, and they can use the browser as a reliable open platform where online content and services blend seamlessly within the browser’s environment and interface.

As browser features increase in number and sophistication, different bars, buttons, and icons crowd the UI, so designers are turning to more organized and multi-purpose “browser bars.” Firefox paved the way with the “Awesome bar” in version 3, and it will be improved in version 3.1 with smart filtering and an RSS search. Chrome’s “Omnibar” solution ups the ante. It combines local and Internet searches in one box so that doing a search returns a full list of URLs, bookmarks, navigation history, Web search, Gmail messages, and so on. It’s a conceptual breakthrough in terms of simplicity, but the search results aren’t intuitive enough to make sense. On the other hand, IE 8 has a full-featured search tool that sorts results by category and uses an RSS feed to sift information. The result list is tidy and can be edited by the user.

Of course, every round of browser innovation brings new technologies, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because the development of HTML 5, CSS 3, SVG, DOM 2, and visual effects give users plenty of options. However, new technologies can frustrate developers because they obliterate any chance of standards compliance. Before these new browser wars, we were close to a set of standards. Now, browsers seem to be going in their own direction, and they sometimes use proprietary solutions. For example, the Mozilla team is working with Adobe to improve Flash ActionScript support (“Tamarin”).

Recently developers got some good news from Microsoft. Internet Explorer 8 established a native “standard rendering mode” to support CSS 2.1 and provide standard compliance. In addition, there’s some DOM and HTML 5 support, although minimal. Looking at Ajax Web applications, IE 8 also delivers an interesting waypoints feature for the “back” button; it can be reprogrammed to redirect the user not to the last page, but to the last task.

So while these new browser wars are stimulating competition, offering new user experiences, and creating exciting new technologies, they’ve also brought a downside. By disrupting Web standards adoption we’re lowering the universality of the Internet because of code conflicts and misinterpretation. This is a crucial issue that’s often overlooked. According to Webmonkey (welcome back, guys), these standards aren’t merely a collection of guidelines and technologies; they are the lingua franca that guarantees universality and neutrality no matter which browser or software platform someone uses. Web standards should be a common foundation that every browser should be able to interpret properly, primarily for the user’s advantage.

This issue will only grow as online applications move to center stage. Web technologies are going to play a critical role in these applications, and without standards users could be forced into using a specific browser to use an application because others aren’t compatible. The last thing we want to do is limit usability and allow room for hidden agendas. This round of browser wars should lead to liberation, not limitation.

Gianluca Brugnoli is a digital media designer at frog’s Milan studio and a professor of design at the Politecnico di Milano University.