Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

Summary: Three major releases from the three leading browser developers in the same month? That's unheard of. A closer look reveals that the rules have changed in the browser space and why the core of Internet Explorer will still be around in five years when Firefox will have, at best, a loyal cult following.

SHARE:

Something extraordinary happened this month. Google released version 10 of its Chrome browser. Microsoft released Internet Explorer 9. And now, after an epic development cycle that included 12 betas, Mozilla has finally said “Ship it” for Firefox 4.

Three major releases from the three leading browser developers in the same month? That’s unheard of. It took more than 15 years for Internet Explorer to work its way through nine versions. Firefox, which used to be the agile upstart, has taken nearly two years to progress from version 3.5 and nearly three years from version 3.0. It took Google only a bit more than two years to ship Chrome 9 last month, and it was replaced by version 10 just a little over four weeks later.

That difference in tempo is fundamental to understanding how the computing world has changed. The idea of branded browsers as standalone pieces of software seems increasingly quaint. Google is setting a blistering pace and defining a world where a browser is simply a piece of plumbing that you refresh every few weeks (unless you think that’s just too slow and you want to download a new build every night).

It’s tempting to look at Microsoft’s history with Internet Explorer and assume that they are just incapable of working at the speed of the Internet. It’s also easy to be skeptical about Mozilla’s ambitious roadmap that has them shipping versions 5, 6, and 7 before the end of this year. But take a closer look at the development process for IE 9 and there’s a different story to tell. Microsoft is playing the same game as Google. Mozilla is stuck in 2005. And that’s why the core of Internet Explorer will still be around in five years when Firefox will have, at best, a loyal cult following.

The first platform preview of Internet Explorer 9 was released on March 16, 2010. The final release arrives just two days shy of the one-year anniversary of IE9’s public debut. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. IE9 is part of Windows, and its development reflects the same engineering discipline that we saw in Windows 7: Plan, develop, stabilize, ship. Repeat.

During that year-long cycle, Microsoft cranked out one beta and a release candidate. More importantly, they released seven updates to the platform preview—at a pace of one every 6-8 weeks or so. It’s worth noting that Microsoft could have slapped a user interface and a version number on each of those releases. If they had, the cadence would have matched up neatly with that breakneck pace set by Google. But they chose to leave those distractions off and focus on the rendering engine. Those platform previews were aimed at developers building applications.

Although Microsoft is mum on its future plans, you can bet that development will continue at that same measured pace, although perhaps not so publicly. This release isn’t so much a finish line as it is another milestone in a much larger process. The IE 9 engine will be in phones before the end of the year, and it will play a huge role in the next version of Windows, which should be available to the public in 18 months or so.

And there’s the real story.

What is Microsoft’s biggest challenge today? We’re not in a post-PC world yet, but the transition is well under way. Successfully making that transition involves building a platform that can scale from handheld devices to workstations, from tiny smartphone screens to tablets to wall-sized displays. Microsoft isn’t going to accomplish that goal by tweaking the classic Windows interface. Anyone who’s used a Windows 7 tablet PC knows that a bigger Start button and taskbar aren’t enough.

At last year’s MIX conference, Microsoft talked about its new app platform, which is based on a simple design philosophy: write code once, target for multiple platforms. That’s the same space that Google is playing in. Google has an entire family of apps that are designed to work exclusively in a browser. There’s Google Mail and Google Docs, and more importantly there’s Google Apps Marketplace, where third parties are building project management, CRM, and accounting apps designed to work in Chrome. Microsoft has Outlook Web Access 2010, which is an astonishing replication of the Outlook interface. (If you’ve only used OWA 2007, you’ll be blown away by the improvement.)

Microsoft’s Office Web Apps are an interesting first step, but their limitations are glaring and the gap between Word and Excel in a browser and their standalone counterparts is huge. By this time next year, I expect we’ll see a beta version of Microsoft Office for the Web that is designed to run in a browser window. More importantly, I am certain that Windows 8 will be in beta by that time, and I’m convinced that we’ll see an alternative shell for Windows 8, written in HTML5 and intended for use on tablets. It will use Internet Explorer’s rendering engine, which has already proven to be wicked fast, without needing any of its old-school user interface.

So where does that leave Firefox? It doesn’t have an app ecosystem or a loyal core of developers. Extensions? Those were worth bragging about in 2005, but in 2012 the story is apps. Businesses and consumers will want to use the same browser that powers their installed apps. In the PC space, that means Google or Microsoft. It doesn’t leave room for a third player.

So long, Firefox. It was nice to know you.

Related stories:

Topics: Windows, Browser, Google, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

397 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Words

    Apps, Extensions, Add-ons - same thing. Slap a new name, and your soooo 2011, forget the new name, and you soooo 2005.
    Forget to put to many O's in your soooo, and you are soooo 20th century.
    gilfreund
    • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

      @gilfreund

      Apps and extensions are two completely different things. An extension extends the browsers functionality, while an app is an application created using HTML and JavaScript that runs within the browser.

      I think Bott's statement is completely incorrect, though. Extensions are still useful, but many Firefox extensions are being ported over to Google Chrome (though not all, as Chrome is still missing some API's).

      Apps are important, but extensions and apps are in to separate categories. Plus there can certainly be extensions which use the apps and what not for integration purposes.
      ian.aldrighetti
      • Ed never gets it right

        I don't bother to read his content any more. the only reason you see this reply is to advice you to do the same.

        Ignore him, and once in a while when you see he made a fool of himself, remind him.

        Ed, remember what you said about Win 7 phones? Yeah.. you were off base like usual. You never hit anything right.
        Uralbas
      • Re: Apps and extensions are two completely different things.

        @ian.aldrighetti

        Right with you on that one. I stopped reading at that point. Once again it's clear that he isn't earning his kickback by doing his homework. He should know these things if he is going to write this kind of article.
        Tsingi
      • Ed gets it right often enough

        @Uralbas I don't see that Ed is universally wrong as you suggest. I've gotten a lot of useful information in his columns.

        No doubt there's a bit of a Microsoft cheerleader factor here, but then look at the by-line: "Ed Bott's Microsoft Report."

        So you might want to turn a filter or two on if so inclined, but I wouldn't go so far as dump Ed's columns from my reading.

        I never take anyone's predictions very seriously in any event. I just read around that stuff.
        pgit
      • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

        Who is this idiot anyway? I didn't know they hired idiots to write. Seriously. This guy is way off-base. The amount of FAIL and STUPID in this article is off the charts.

        Ed, you're using up precious oxygen. You're not fit to be any sort of tech writer. A retarded monkey could write better. You should quit and get a job that fits your intelligence level. But I don't know if they have any.
        CrepescularMonty
      • Ed... you forgot something...

        IE9 might be cool but it only runs on Windows Vista or Windows 7. So even if it has a meteoric accent, it will touch ceiling in a matter of months.<br><br>Chrome, on the other side, depends on Google's master plan, which includes Chrome OS, Android and Google Apps. If they move too fast, and make any mistakes, their plan might fail.<br><br>Firefox, on the other side, is like independent film producers. It will always have a following regardless of trends and hipsters. It can target the "Luddites" that won't upgrade, or the free thinkers, that don't want to surrender to Google or Microsoft.<br><br>If you witnessed the 90's film and music phenomenon it was poised to be dominated by the big bands (Backstreet Boys, N'Sync, etc.) and big movie stars (Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, etc.), but in the end, the scene was ruled by the Seattle grunge (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, etc) and the independent movie scene (trumpeted by Ewan McGregor and "Trainspotting").<br><br>In the end, this "cult" following might end up being greater than the mainstream players, mainly because it is "grassroots" while the other is just trendy and hippy, and easily gets shifted toward a faster player.
        cosuna
      • ironically I just read this on firefox 4 / linux

        Already firefox 4 has surpassed total IE9 downloads on the first day of release (I would post a link but it would make my post be deleted), one reason being FF4 is compatible with WinXP, which is still the most popular OS on the planet.

        Go figure...
        ~doolittle~
      • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

        @~dolittle~
        You are quite correct. Reports are 2.35 million downloads of IE9 in 24 hours compared to 11 million of FF4 in 48 hours. I suggest that this is a fair disendorsement of IE9.
        Wakemewhentrollsgone
      • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

        @ian.aldrighetti
        I completely agree. I think Ed is being a little bias here...
        rubenb@...
    • The most stupid, assanine post by Ed Bott. Ever.

      First - all those apps in Google app market place? They run in Firefox, because, well, they're web apps!

      Second - all those web apps by MS (Office, Outlook, Hotmail, etc)? Yup, they run in Firefox too, perfectly!

      Third - millions of people use the vast array of great Firefox extensions everyday, and they work great. And Chrome, IE, Safari, Opera all offer extensions, but not nearly as good or numerous as those of Firefox.

      Fourth - Firefox 4 is damn fast, in start up, page rendering, and Javascript processing. True, Chrome and IE might have slight (in milliseconds) speed advantages. But for all the functionality and customizability you get with Firefox, the few milliseconds difference is completely negligible.

      Fifth - Firefox is rock solid with standards (only exceeded by Chrome), and is rock solid with web page rendering and compatibility. Basically, everything I ever throw at Firefox renders properly, where as IE and Chrome have occasional glitches.

      Sixth - Firefox 4 is a major reworking of a lot of internals, the javascript engine, add-ons architecture, so this release had an appropriately long gestation period to get it right (Microsoft could learn from this). But now that the major internal overhaul is done, there will fast releases of new versions - 5, 6 and 7 are all planned to be released this year. That is a fast release cycle

      Seventh (and finally) - Firefox has already gotten 7.1 million downloads, dwarfing IE's 2.1.

      I also enjoy using both Chrome 10 and IE9. I particularly preferred them prior to the release of Firefox 4, because Firefox 3.6 was getting a bit long on the tooth, and heavy, and not as fast.

      But Firefox 4 has really put it back in the game.

      It's also nice to use a browser produced by an independent, non-profit organization, who have the open web in mind with all of their releases. I can't ever fully trust browsers from the big corps.

      Yes, congratulations to Ed Bott for getting page hits and lots of comments (including mine). I got suckered in with his completely stupid flame bait. But c'mon. Get a flipping clue. Really, the ignorance, and MS fanboyism, of Ed Bott's post is truly astounding.

      Too bad, because, even though I know that Ed Bott is a big MS guy, I usually find his posts to be pretty well thought out.

      Not this one. Not by a long shot.
      jasdude
      • Message has been deleted.

        CrepescularMonty
      • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

        @jasdude
        My problem with Firefox is that it takes so many extensions to do the same thing that you can do in natively in IE9.
        mswift@...
      • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

        @jasdude "Fifth - Firefox is rock solid with standards (only exceeded by Chrome), and is rock solid with web page rendering and compatibility. Basically, everything I ever throw at Firefox renders properly, where as IE and Chrome have occasional glitches."

        So... why are you doing initial coding for it? IE comes with windows. 80 tp 90% of users use... IE. (surprise)

        IF you code for IE you get to upload the page and then play with FF and chrome.

        And YES, it's a disaster to fix FF and chrome just as much as it is for IE if you code for FF in the first place. But you get the option of uploading a working IE page and worry about the 10% or so of users who aren't using IE.

        IOW, if you upload a great looking FF page... 80 to 90% of your users "may" see a jumbled mess. As we all know, all browsers render differently. Why not code for the most popular one to start off with? If you do that for a week, you'll be screaming at FF for being a disaster to code for. Been there, done that.
        garyoa1
      • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

        @jasdude
        garyoa1, when you say "IE comes with windows. 80 tp 90% of users use... IE. (surprise)", what year are you talking about? 2000?
        A quick Google check will confirm that in 2011, 37.5% of users (not 90%) use IE, compared to Firefox?s 38.1% the rest being shared between Chrome, Opera and Safari... so if you want your site to look good for 37.5% of users, code specifically for IE... otherwise, I would suggest keeping as close as possible to standards (most modern browsers are pretty good at folowing those).
        reg_d
      • RE: Why Internet Explorer will survive and Firefox won't

        @reg_d : Where did you get these numbers that Firefox has 38.1% and IE has 37.5%. Last i checked from [what was it?] Net Applications that IE is just over 50%, Firefox is sitting in the 20s and slowly dropping.
        Gis Bun
      • Smells Like Click Bait

        @jasdude---Your last few lines tho'---Couldn't have said it better myself.
        PreachJohn
      • Wikimedia Shows IE at 41 to 42%

        @Gis Bun<br>Wikimedia stats shows a gradual decline in IE over the past couple of years (from around 57%) until just the last couple of months where it has stabilized between 41 and 42%. Firefox on the other hand remained stable over most of that period between 29 and 31%, but just recently experienced bit of a decline to between 27 and 28%.<br><br>It's probable that the release of Firefox 4 will offset the recent decline or at least stabilize Firefox's numbers again. The anticipation and release of Internet Explorer 9, along with the uptake of Windows 7 seems to have stabilized IE's numbers at present. If Windows 7 gets more sell through, I think that will help IE more directly than any more browser updates.<br><br>Firefox's numbers are significantly higher in Europe than worldwide, so that may be where reg_d's numbers came from; I don't know.<br><br>Incidentally, I am typing this from Firefox 4. I'm not likely to start using IE because I spend too much of my time on other operating systems besides Windows. Also, Chrome and IE annoy me because the search within the page function is not linked to the slash key (I have to hit Ctrl-F instead).

        Edit: It's worth pointing out that this is percentage of total hits to Wikimedia sites rather than only desktop based hits, so the actual numbers on the desktop for each browser are slightly higher, but in the essentially same proportion.
        CFWhitman
      • FF extensions are far superior to anything IE has to offer.

        @mswift
        "My problem with Firefox is that it takes so many extensions to do the same thing that you can do in natively in IE9."

        hmm - which ones are you referring to? My base extensions are adblock, noscript and web of trust. IE kind-of does a WOT type of service but if you use WOT you will realize it is far better.

        Personally I block IE on all my windows-based home PCs since my kids run an on-line game that has a custom browser (that forces #$!@ ads to make it free) and some of the ads force IE to run with a fake virus scan page. So I block both IE and the referring page, problem solved.
        ~doolittle~
      • Reply to GisBun

        @Gis Bun
        http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_stats.asp
        Joe.Smetona