Starting in January 2012, if you have automatic updates turned on, Microsoft will begin silently updating your installed copy of Internet Explorer to the latest version. If you’re on Windows XP, you will wake up one day and find your decrepit IE6 or 7 replaced with 8 — and Vista and 7 will have the joy of using IE9. Ostensibly, Redmond’s intentions are noble — Beauty of the Web! Open Standards! Security! Privacy! Liberté, égalité, fraternité! — but in reality, it is Microsoft’s latest maneuver in the Browser Cold War.
The browser wars
The First Browser War (BW I) raged from 1997 to 2001, with sorties by Internet Explorer 4, 5, and 6 — all of which were bundled with Windows — steadily battling back Netscape until complete market dominance was obtained. IE’s market share was so overwhelming that Microsoft didn’t release a new version of IE for five years, effectively stifling the march of innovation and standards on the web.
The Second Browser War (BW II) began when Microsoft realized that Mozilla Firefox — which emerged from the ashes of Nutscrape in 2004 — was a serious contender. Gates awakened the IE team from their dragon-like, mmm-fat-piles-of-gold slumber to produce IE7 in 2006 — but it wasn’t enough to stymie Firefox’s growth. Then, with Firefox creeping closer and closer to 30%, Google released Chrome at the end of 2008 and Internet Explorer’s market share began its free fall in earnest. Microsoft responded with IE8 in 2009, but to little avail.
Browser War I & II
And now… now we find ourselves in the midst of the Browser Cold War. Every combatant is armed to the teeth with an almost identical feature set, and all three of the big browsers have roughly the same population. Short of launching a nuke, which fortunately no one has, the only way to gain ground is through propaganda, FUD, and sleazy underhanded maneuvers.
The Berlin Sandbox
Take Google, for example. It is now spending millions of dollars to market Chrome as the fastest option, when we know that it’s virtually identical to Firefox and IE. Even worse, and reminiscent of the tactics that resulted in an antitrust ruling against Internet Explorer and Microsoft in 2001, Google abuses its search and video monopoly to advertise its browser. Then there’s the recent independent (but Google-funded) study that shows Chrome to be the most secure browser on the web — but hilariously, and probably because Google dictated the test protocol, the study simply ignores a bunch of Firefox and IE security features to paint Chrome as some kind of indomitable Hulk-like hero. In reality, all three browsers are very secure.
Mozilla, which is being squeezed out by rabid bloodthirstiness and larger marketing budgets, has started to get its hands dirty as well. The launch of Firefox 5, released in June, was the biggest social media orgy since the Firefox 1 launch parties in 2004. Recently, with its shift to a Chrome-like rapid release cycle, a lot of work has been done on introducing automatic, behind-the-scenes updates — and now, at long last, Mozilla is nudging Luddite Firefox 3.6 hold-outs to update. Last, but not least, Mozilla is even using adorable red panda (firefox) cubs to try and boost its user base. With only a fraction of its competitors’ budget and gravitas, expect a lot more of these cutesy, forebrain-type land grabs from Mozilla.
And finally there’s the Microsoft, the 800lb gorilla that’s desperately trying to appear calm, collected, and graceful — but deep down some large cogs are whirring, grumbling, and crunching under the strain. In the last 10 years, Microsoft has registered just a handful of market share increases. Seriously, just look at the graph below — if you were the exec in charge of Microsoft’s portal to the web, how would you feel? Some poor sod — or, more likely, a long line of poor sods — has had to struggle through a decade of yearly reviews, each time explaining, yet again, that he has lost another 5% of the market.
Browser War III & The Browser Cold War
This is why Microsoft is enabling silent, automatic Internet Explorer updates. It went half way and rolled out Internet Explorer 9 through Windows Update back in April, but it still required users to click through the IE installer — now, IE9 (or 8) will simply install with the rest of your important and critical updates. Microsoft, like Google, also uses its huge web presence to push surfers towards IE9, and it uses a few of Mozilla’s social tricks with sites like IE Test Drive and Beauty of the Web.
Cuban Missile Crisis
Where is this technological Cold War heading, then? To be honest, as far as consumers are concerned, there’s nothing to worry about. The web has never been as fast or functional, and as long as HTML5 and its Open Web brethren continue to thrive this will continue.
As far as the browser makers are concerned, though, expect further foul play. Expect Microsoft to register a huge win with its built-in, Metro version of IE10 in Windows 8. Likewise, expect Chrome to dig its claws further into Android — and perhaps a renewed push for Chrome OS is due soon, too. Mozilla, being a charity, can’t (and won’t) apply the same kind of pressure, but hopefully its Web API and Firefox for Android efforts will be enough to keep it relevant. Without Firefox, of course, there would be nothing to stop Microsoft or Google from heading down the same path that led Microsoft, back in the balmy days of the Dot Com Bubble, to introduce such standards-defying disasters as DHTML. Let’s hope that it doesn’t get to that.