Microsoft: Browser standards drive innovation

As the major browsers become more similar, Microsoft says that users and developers are benefiting from a focus on speed and quality instead of incompatible features
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor

There is less difference between the major web browsers like Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome and Internet Explorer than ever before, according to Microsoft developer evangelist Martin Beeby.

Web standards and developer ecosystems help drive browser innovation, Beeby told an audience of developers at the HTML5 Live one-day conference in London on Wednesday, adding that since the release of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), there are fewer differences between the major browser vendors.

"There's more similarities between all the browser manufacturers — Opera, Safari, Chrome and IE — than there ever has been before, and that's a huge win for the industry," Beeby said. "We're at a stage where Google and Internet Explorer and Firefox are all publicly in marketing terms trying to push forward and show which is the fastest and which is the best, but for developers and architects the real win is that browsers are more similar than ever before."

The push towards homogenisation from Microsoft came with the realisation of its falling browser market share following its release of IE6 in 2001.

"I think it peaked around 2003, where something like 95 percent of the web were using Internet Explorer, 90 percent of them were using IE6," Beeby said. "From the release of IE6 in 2001, we then had this whole huge gaping hole of a gap, where we had the rise of the competition. Our 95-percent market share dwindled as the competition delivered faster, better, more standards-compliant browsers with the ecosystem to support it."

"What's really interesting about the rise of Firefox in particular is that if you look at the data, one of the things that you'll see is that a lot of people moved to Firefox for one simple thing — it had tabbed browsing. That innovation in the UI drove so many people to Firefox," he added.

Embracing standards

Microsoft now has 16 full-time employees working with the W3C to standardise HTML5 and CSS 3 specifications, and it has submitted around 1700 test cases, he added.

Beeby also said that there is now far more dialogue between rival browser manufacturers to ensure standards can be put in place that encourage innovation, and that Microsoft had shifted strategies in developing its current and next-generation browsers, moving from the "very insular" development of IE6, 7 and 8 to a more open approach that encouraged feedback from the community for IE9.

"Finally browser manufacturers are talking to each other, and we're talking to other browser manufacturers too. There's no single company controlling the web, and that's a good thing," he said. "People can choose the devices and browsers that they want to choose, not the ones that are forced on them, it feels to me that with releases like IE9 and IE10, Microsoft is finally back into this developer community."

No move to rapid release

Beeby confirmed that the company is not currently trying to compete with the Firefox or Chrome's rapid-release schedule.

"We don't share Google's model at the moment of the six-week cadence. We need to make sure that any standard we put into the browser was finished, was ready, was well standardised and there was broad agreement in the industry," Beeby said. "And that's because we don't want to make the same mistakes as with IE6, the mistake of putting something in a browser that you can't take back. Because once you put it in, it's always there.

"Even with all the updating, there will still be versions of older browsers in use... there will still people be using Netscape Gold today," he said.

The next version of Internet Explorer, IE10, brings a number of new features, including expanded HTML5 and CSS 3 support for things such as gradients, multi-column support and flexible grids. It will also improve JavaScript support and bring a 'chromeless' mode, replacing the traditional browser UI with a full-screen viewing experience.

IE10 is due to ship by default with Windows 8 — and is available as part of the Windows 8 Developer Preview — when it is released in 2012.

Beeby added that removing browser chrome was a trend he expected to see across the entire industry in the near future.

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