Google/Browser Wars again

Browser wars are coming back. Google still denies that they are going release a browser, but they are definitely creating one. There are two clear factors:
1) They hired the lead developer from firefox.
2) When you install firefox, the home page is set to this google web page. As you can see, the page is hosted at Google, and yet branded specifically for Firefox and Google.

On the whole, I believe competition is a great thing. So I’m really glad to see another browser in the market.

At the same time, however, my selfish developer side is lamenting the end of the days of only one browser. This will unfortunately trickle down to end users with watered-down web applications again.

The reason that web applications will suffer is because web developers will now start building for yet-one-more browser to be compatible with. Remember back to 1997 when there were literally about 6 different browsers that every website had to support? (3 versions of netscape, 3 versions of IE) Writing websites was a horrible experience. Each site ended up picking the minimalist set of browser features just so that the application would work everywhere.

Well, every browser has bugs, even firefox. As I’m playing with it, I see them all the time (especially around javascript event handling and such). As the market splits, web application developers will find themselves increasingly running into potholes where code *should* work in both places, but only works in one.

And of course, the browser vendors are trying to lock users into their own applications too. They do this by providing tools and features which they simply know won’t work well on the other browser. For example, ASP.NET has some code which works great on IE, but deliberately doesn’t try to render on non-IE browsers (such as the javascript-form-validation code). This makes it hard for developers to use those features without having to consciously not support the other browsers. Google will do this type of thing too.

For end users, it may not be too bad this time – if there are just two versions. You’ll need two browsers – some applications will only work in IE, some only in Firefox. Many applications today already deployed only really support IE (its fair, since they were deployed before firefox was born), and its unlikely that the sites which created them will switch to supporting Firefox for quite some time. Some of them are very popular web applications like OWA (Outlook’s Web Access).

But, we know that Microsoft will eventually have a new version out too. In a year or so, I wouldn’t be surprised if websites had to navigate through the bugs of Firefox 1.0, Firefox 2.0, IE 6.0, and IE 6.5!! (Don’t forget safari!)

Anyway, don’t get me wrong; I very much think having more browser choice is a great thing! Its just a bit sad to have development get splintered again.