How competition in the browser market helped all of us


Remember the 90s, when Microsoft had illegally established a dominant position in the browser market and the dominant browser was MSIE? You might think that was harmless, but it has caused several problems:

  • No competition means websites were written for a specific browser instead of to a standard (that the W3C publishes)
  • MSIE (purposefully?) broke this standard in order to make sites written for MSIE incompatible with other browsers and further strenghten Microsoft’s position
  • MS started adding tags to MSIE that didn’t exist on any other browser. Not for the good of mankind, but to lock people onto the MS product
  • Lack of competition meant that innovation stagnated
  • There are plenty of security holes in MSIE, and there was little incentive for MS to fix them
  • Ask a web developer to tell you just how broken MSIE’s HTML rendering engine is

Yesterday, the Mozilla Foundation released Firefox 3.5 with many new features (mostly under the hood) and speed boosts. People have noticed this new competition and are no longer happy with an old and broken browser like MSIE 6.0, which used to be the default for many. When we look at our website stats at work, about 35% of our users use Firefox, another 35% use Safari and only 25% use Internet Explorer (either 6, 7 or 8). This is excellent news because it is living proof of competition. Competition gave us many improvements:

  • Stability on the web has much improved. Google released their Chrome browser, which runs a separate process for every tab you open, so that only the affected tab crashes if e.g. a plugin messes up, like Adobe Flash often does. Other browser makers are following suit.
  • Google’s Chrome had an extremely fast JavaScript engine, making JavaScript-heavy sites such as Flickr run faster there. There was little competition in this area before Google started the race. Now Firefox 3.5 has caught up with Google Chrome 1.0 in speed, and further improvements in all camps (including MS) can be expected.
  • Mozilla’s rendering engine (Gecko) and various JavaScript engines have been ported to all major platforms. Developers for those platforms have an excellent, open source rendering engine available to use in their projects.
  • The KDE Foundation’s HTML engine (KHTML/WebKit) is used by Apple in Safari and on the iPhone, by Nokia on their mobile phones etc. It’s another Free Software HTML rendering engine. So even among Free Software engines, there is competition!
  • Security is much improved, as pointing at security holes in the competition’s browser can now be used as a marketing tool. Browser developers have improved their QA processes and even Microsoft no longer allows itself six years to fix the browser.
  • Web developers had been frustrated with MSIE’s broken HTML renderer for years. Since there is competition, there is pressure on Microsoft to start following the web standards. Firefox, Chrome, Opera etc. do a much better job at using web standards, but no one cared for a long time since they had to write broken HTML code in order to support MSIE users. Now web developers discovered their pride, started writing according to web standards (with the help of influential figures like Jeffrey Zeldman) and boom, suddenly good standards support is an important feature for a browser. Someone obviously woke up the developers at MS as well, because IE 8.0 does a much better job at standards support than the previous versions.

So if you ever think “bah, it doesn’t matter that there’s a monopoly, I wouldn’t be better off without it”, think of these points. Yes, it does matter. The lack of competition in key IT markets makes a big difference. Imagine if we had the same situation in operating systems as we have with browsers, a 30/30/30/10% split of the market. Standards would be followed more closely, systems would interoperate better and there would be an actual incentive to innovate and improve. And most importantly, you as an individual or company would have more choice.

Some people think this is just a mantra repeated by free-market fanatics, but it is true, as you can see with your own eyes in today’s browser market, with just the few examples mentioned above. Oppose monopolies in computing. They are bad for you.

Edit: Just one day after I posted this, Microsoft was again caught abusing its power. They are deploying a program that changes people’s default search engine from whatever they have selected (perhaps Google?) to Microsoft’s own Bing. The user is never asked whether they want this change, unless they have third-party software installed that alerts them to such changes. You see that anti-competitive actions by monopolists are still happening in this industry.

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