Google, Mozilla Foundation and Opera Software keep things interesting in a field long thought to be settled.
The flurry of activity in recent days surrounding the Web browser market makes it feel more like 1998 than 2008. Now if only we had the economy of 1998, too.
The Mozilla Foundation this week released beta 2 Firefox 3.1 as well as the first beta of Thunderbird 3, its e-mail and Usenet newsgroup reader. Opera Software released the first alpha of Opera 10, the plucky little browser with an extremely small footprint that runs on very low resources.
And it seems Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is getting serious about Chrome, its experimental technology browser. Marissa Mayer, vice president of user experience, told TechCrunch's Mike Arrington in an interview at Le Web 08 in Paris that the company is taking Chrome out of beta.
This would allow Google to productize Chrome and let OEM partners, such as PC vendors, bundle it with their computers. OEMs aren't keen on something stamped "Beta," and virtually everything Google offers is considered a beta. GMail, its e-mail service, has borne the tag for years.
The news comes just two days after Google announced Native Client, a plug-in to run native code within a Web browser, reflecting an increasing aggressiveness on the part of Google toward the PC client.
The Mozilla Foundation, the group behind development of the Firefox browser, is quite dependent on Google; 88 percent of its income comes from Google thanks to search-related royalties.
Google says it will not leave Mozilla hanging even though it has its own browser designs. "We have a great relationship with Mozilla, we both share the same goal of an open Web and giving uses more choices," said Linus Upson, engineering director at Google. "We think the relationship has been great for both sides and we want to continue it."
Gartner analyst Ray Valdes doesn't think Google will cut the non-profit group loose. "If they did that it would be a return to the bad old days of Microsoft dominance and Google doesn't want that," he told InternetNews.com.
Plus, he figures if Google were to actually pull its support out of Mozilla, there are enough industry forces who feel the need for a counterbalance against Microsoft that Firefox would gain support to make up for the loss of Google.
Browsers bring new competition on the client side
Such competition for browsers, normally free products, is notable considering the browser as a piece of software has been on the market for 15 years. This kind of vigorous competition isn't seen in other client technologies, like e-mail or word processors.
"Browsers went through a long stagnant period from when Netscape died and Firefox came out," said Upson. "Nothing happened in the browser space because there was no competition. Now you see a lot happening and competition is off the charts. Browsers were dormant for the better part of a decade, so we have a lot of pent up work to do."
Added Valdes "I think that the driving factor is people want more impactful user experiences. Marketers want to impact users, users want more responsive experiences and vendors want to get their technology out there, so you have three different self-interests that are pushing this forward."
Valdes said that the browser is a tool for communication, and people want to communicate in more and better ways, much like the evolution of the telephone. "That's going to be a constant evolution," he said. "The browser spec written 10 years ago was fully satisfied, but then the spec changed and people want more. They want multimedia, they want graphics, they want different modes of usage, and they want mobile access that works."
The latest example of meeting a specialized needs came with this week's release of the Blackbird browser, a Mozilla derivative designed for African-American users. Blackbird features links to social networks and news tickers of interest to the African-American community.
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