Did Microsoft make Firefox?

This post by Matt Assay discussing how we got to a competitive browser market got me thinking. (Dangerous I know, but bear with me.)

… I suppose the truly intriguing thing is not that we have a competitive market for Web browsers again, but how it happened. Baker told me recently that Firefox is “an anomaly” because it managed to beat back overwhelming Microsoft market share. Can we do it again?

What was the tipping point when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team finally had to start paying attention to Mozilla’s Firefox browser? And when did Google decide that it couldn’t subsist on Firefox’s roadmap and instead had to forge its own browser, Chrome?

Mozilla FirefoxMy own take on this is it was all Microsoft’s own doing. Think about it. Their browser, Internet Explorer [and more specifically IE6], was locked into the operating system that ran an almost every PC sold. So for Mozilla’s Firefox browser to take more than a 20% market share is pretty staggering. If you use Windows (as certainly a few years ago almost everyone did) you already have a browser on that Windows PC so why go and download another one? It isn’t quite the same for OpenOffice.org or Gimp for example. You are having to make a decision about acquiring an Office Application Suite or an Image Editor; whether you pay for commercial code or use FOSS is your choice. But with the browser, you already have one.

My conclusion to Matt’s question is that it comes down to just how bad IE6 really was. If it had been a half decent browser with acceptable support for the standards it was supposed to support then I don’t think Firefox, and possibly the entire FOSS ecosystem, would be as strong as it is today.

Presumably Microsoft could have patched and updated IE6 during the course of it’s life but they chose not to, and instead stuck to delivering a half-baked, non-compliant browser full of leaks and security holes and proprietary features that lead many unfortunate souls to build sites that only worked with Microsoft’s browser.

I think that it was the web development community that started this movement. Being professionally involved in helping Graphic Designers make websites work across browsers, I know just how BAD IE6 really is when it comes to supporting standards. If it hadn’t been so terrible, or even got fixed, I don’t think the web developer community would have started using Firefox in the numbers that they did and then espousing it’s virtues with quite the same level of gusto.

Of course, as well as being a decent browser, there were many new and innovative ideas and features in Firefox, a huge extension and plug-in library and cross platform support too. But as “most” users of a browser are simply surfing, then if IE wasn’t such a pile of steaming poo in the first place I don’t think many consumers would have been inclined to change at all.

What do you think?

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  • Asa Dotzler says:

    >My conclusion to Matt’s question is that it comes down to just how
    >bad IE6 really was. If it had been a half decent browser with
    >acceptable support for the standards it was supposed to support then
    >I don’t think Firefox, and possibly the entire FOSS ecosystem, would
    >be as strong as it is today.

    I.E.6 was actually seen as a fine browser for its time by pretty much everyone, users and developers alike. In 2001 when it was released, there was no standard but the Microsoft standard because Microsoft had captured about 85% of the browsing market and was a sure bet at seeing that grow to 95% with another year or two of XP sales. Users were happy with the feature set because IE (and for some an inferior Netscape) was all they knew and it wasn’t failing them in any obvious ways.

    (Remember, this was the era of “Melissa” “I Love You” and “Anna Kournikova” all Outlook *email* viruses, before the browser was the target it became, before the Web-based worms and phishing attacks. Remember, this was an era before the Web had become an application platform where people actually did work. Remember, this was before self-publishing for the masses with “blogs” and Flickr and YouTube. Remember, this was before the Web had become central to the lives of a billion people.)

    So, if you’re Microsoft in 2001 and you’ve essentially sewn up the market, what do you do? Well, what they did was to disband the Internet Explorer team, sending them off to various other projects like Web TV and Longhorn. They explained that there would be no more stand-alone browser releases and that the browser was nothing more than another OS feature that would get updates when new versions of the OS shipped.

    From that point until Firefox scared the crap out of them in 2004, they basically gave up on changing anything but security fixes and security-related features and another update to IE wasn’t planned until the long-delayed Longhorn/Vista shipped.

    Implementing new W3C standards or even fixing bugs in pre-existing standards was not on the table. There was just no one at Microsoft working on that and the Web settled in to Trident’s mediocre and buggy “feature set”. Sadly, most people were quite content with that state of affairs.

    And that’s where everyone, I mean everyone! thought that things would stay. And 99% of the Internet population (everyone except some web developers and the people working on Mozilla) thought that was just fine. The Web was basically done. Maybe when Longhorn/Vista shipped, people though, we’ll get refresh of the IE icons. No one was thinking about Web standards.

    So it is not the case, not in the slightest bit the case, that Microsoft’s lack of standards support opened up the door for Firefox.

    What opened up the door for Firefox was the massive outbreak of web-based attacks like “drive-by” installs of malware, the rise of phishing, the scourge of pop-up and pop-under advertising, the triumph of “search” over “browse”, and the proliferation of Ajax and decent Web applications.

    The Web was still growing and changing in huge ways while Microsoft stood still. (The number of people going online doubled between IE6 shipping and Firefox 1 shipping. Mapquest was replaced by Google maps. Yahoo’s directory was replaced by Google search. Etc. etc.)

    And Firefox was there with the right set of features at the right time. Just as the security situation for IE6 became untenable, Firefox provided a much safer alternative by being immune to most IE attacks and offering phishing and spoofing protections. Just as pop-ups and pop-unders became unbearable, Firefox gave people an exceptional pop-up blocker. Just as people were transitioning to a Web of applications rather than pages, Firefox gave people tabbed browsing so they could easily manage several always open apps. And just as search was replacing browse as the primary mode of getting around online, Firefox offered simple and extensible built-in search.

    That’s what made Firefox the strong contender that it was and allowed it to grow to 15% of the market before Microsoft could respond, not IE’s lack of support for standards.

    Now, the good news is that Mozilla has always cared deeply about Web standards and particularly about moving the capabilities, the feature set of the web forward. And with sufficient market share and mindshare Mozilla was able to push Microsoft to start improving in that area as well.

    So, standards, security, performance, and user feature innovations are happening across the browser landscape today and that’s great. But it might not have been so, and not because of IE6 being a horrible browser, but because Firefox was a better browser that fit better and was keeping up with an evolving Web.

    • Alan Lord says:

      @Asa, many thanks for the considered reply. It is an interesting read and you make some good points.

      I do still think though, that if MS had actually continued to patch and improve IE6 as the web moved forward then there would not be such a large and enthusiastic band of web developers who have undoubtedly made a difference. I think, when I moved to FF (on Windows XP back then), it was for features and stability more than security concerns and was because I was interested in making web sites that worked.

      Thanks again, I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

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