Is the browser war pushing us forward or holding us back?

As the push to the cloud moves forward, it feels counter-productive that improvements to browser technology would come at the expense of leaving some out in the cold - a move that Apple showcased earlier this month and Microsoft is now creating with its beta release of IE9

The beta release of Internet Explorer 9 didn't really have a major impact on my life, seeing how there is no IE for Mac users.

Fair enough. Windows users were left out of the cold when Apple streamed its iPod news event earlier this month because of the restrictions that Apple imposed - the stream would only run on Apple's Safari browser and only Macs running the latest OS or its lineup of portable devices running iOS.

It seemed silly to be forced to watch the event on the small iPod Touch screen (because my Macbook is still running Leopard, instead of the newer Snow Leopard, OS). But, hey, I wanted to see it - and that meant I had to play by the rules of the game, no matter how ridiculous it seemed.

I remember feeling the same way when it came time for me to file an expense report, only to discover that the new online program that we were using was a Windows-only, IE-only program. Until I was able to set up a remote desktop connection to a Windows PC running at the office, I thought my only option was to run out to a Kinkos - er, FedEx Office store - to use a Windows machine. Argh!

Listen, I understand all about the browser wars and the competitive landscape that goes with it. But in this age of cloud computing, at a time when companies like Google and Salesforce are all about the cloud, limitations on the browsers just seem to do more harm than good.

And it's not just the limitations. Ed Bott, in his review of IE9, seems to have many good things to say about the enhancements to IE. Good for Microsoft. Internet Explorer has been taking a beating for years for being the target of the bad guys on the Web for a long time. Still, it didn't seem to matter much to me because I'm a Mac guy - and Microsoft no longer provides a Mac version of IE. That's cool with me - I have Chrome, Firefox and Safari installed on my Mac.

But then I read a post by fellow tech blogger Harry McCracken over at Technologizer that carried the headline: The Unwelcome Return of “Best Viewed With Internet Explorer”

Say it ain't so, Harry. Don't make me flash back to those days when Web pages wouldn't launch correctly unless they were being accessed by a specific browser. Those are painful memories. We know better by now, don't we? Why would we take steps backward?

The short answer is: for a competitive edge. Here's an excerpt (and image) from Harry's post:

On the modern, mainstream Web, the concept of “Best Viewed With” has become nearly extinct. That’s in part because contemporary browsers have supported major Web standards in at least acceptable fashion, and in part because site proprietors realized that it was a lousy idea to build sites that welcomed in users of some browsers while shutting others out.

Today, however, I’ve been getting a queasy feeling of deja vu as I explore a bunch of Web sites that display messages such as this:

As much as I hate to say it, it looks like we're starting to take some steps backward - and those who are banking on the cloud as part of their business models should take note. Like I said before, I have three browsers on my Mac but I tend to use Chrome most of the time. Sure, I've come across some limitations with it - but Firefox usually works fine in those instances.

Here's the thing: I shouldn't have to think about which browser I'm using to see a Web page and I certainly shouldn't be bullied into using one over another because of the Web page I'm visiting or the operating system I'm using. Browsers should be judged on their individual merits - the under-the-hood technology, the tools and features and so on.

The Web shouldn't be segmented. Unfortunately, it seems that's a scenario that's being created by the browser wars.

Related coverage: There will never be an IE 9 for XP

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