Browser? What browser?

In late 1995 Bill Gates sent round the now infamous “Pearl harbour day memo“. In it he basically started the browser wars after it dawned on him that the internet had to power to displace the desktop as the primary gateway to all things digital. All those Office and Windows licences would become uneccessary and Microsoft’s cash cow would, metaphorially speaking, be slaughtered. What happened next is now history. In 2001 IE6 was born and browser development took a five year breather.

The Internet however did not stand still. Thanks to passionate standards advocates, open source browser developers and the Internet becoming more or less ubiquitous we have now arrived at a point where the latest versions of the five major desktop browser manufacturers are all very similar from an end user perspective. These are (in alphabetical order):

They are all reasonably standards compliant, fast to load, with quick rendering and javascript engines and, above all else, they have all taken the minimalist approach to design. It looks like the browsers are trying to fall over themselves to get out of your way, to become unnoticed, to essentially become a part of your desktop furniture.

Compare, say, the browser masthead for that latest version of Google’s Chrome:

Picture of Google's Chrome browser using very little screen real estate

to that of Netscape 3:

Picture of Netscape 3's browser real estate

Whilst it used to be that some browsers were truly better, faster, more secure or in some way at least significantly different to the rest, I don’t feel that is case anymore. Browser’s have become so similar (presumably because those people using them expect them to work in a given manner) that browser choice is now, more than ever, largely down to personal preference. perhaps along these lines:

  • Enterprise users: Internet Explorer (ok that might be corporate preference, not personal preference)
  • Mac users: Safari
  • Web developers and/or power users: Firefox or Chrome
  • Connoiseurs: Opera

Not that it really matters. In my opinion the choice of browser has become irrelevant. That is not to say browsers are irrelevant though, just the choice.  It also means there is no reason for Windows users (at least those not on XP or earlier) to switch from Internet Explorer 9. In the end Microsoft has, even if not intentionally, got what it wanted: ensure Windows users browse the web using Microsoft technology.

On the otherhand, even that is not relevant anymore. Whilst at the Enterprise level Windows will remain the dominant player, at the consumer level the Internet will be accessed using gadgets running any number of operating systems. No matter whether it is iPhone, iPads, Galaxys, Nexus’ or wrist watches. The consumer based Internet is moving  away from being merely the world wide web and towards being truly ubiquitous. Give it a few more years and “browsing the web” will be only a small part of what we do on the Internet everyday.

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