Thursday, May 14, 2015

Talking Microsoft Edge and Vivaldi: is there space in the market for new browsers

I have been running the Windows 10 technical Preview for a few months on my slow old netbook.  They have been including early looks at their new browser originally called Spartan now officially known as Edge. I've also downloaded and spent some time with Vivaldi a new browser from some of the original people who worked on Opera.

Project Spartan toolbar

Is there room in the browser space for new players?

Throughout the history of the web there has been great fluidity in the browser world. Netscape ruled the early world of the web. Then Internet explorer conquered all. At one point in the early 2000s IE had 95% market share.  You could have looked at that and just assumed it was over and the browser for all time had been found. But as we know, that is not what happened. Along came Firefox and then IE's market share fell and fell.  Firefox stood tall until Chrome came and started chipping away at Firefox.  Current statistics show a somewhat diverse landscape. Chrome is dominant at around 50% market share with the rest largely split between IE and Firefox. Though the smaller plays such as Safari still have their niches. What we learn is that people don't stay with the default. Many normal people will actively choose and download a new browser. Even my Mom downloaded Firefox.

Why is the browser space so volatile?

Most software areas tend to stagnate around one or a few dominant players with only an occasional tectonic shift. The browser space seems particularly unique and fluid. The early browser war  between Netscape and IE revolved around two main battlegrounds. First off, IE was provided as default on windows computers. I don't think this is the major reason that IE became dominant. The two browsers fought over who could bring the best unique powers to the browser. They didn't really care a whole lot about the standards.  Netscape came out first with javascript and IE introduced Active X.  IE won because it provided an easier platform for doing interesting things. Active X was a security nightmare but it gave a lot of power to developers.  As a web developer in the early 2000s It was easier to do interesting and dynamic things on IE. Thus it's dominance. Then things started to shift to Firefox.  Firefox offered tabbed browsing and then add-ons that allowed a lot of customization.  It also worked a lot faster and was more secure than IE. Then Chrome came along and and it was even faster than Firefox and offered great tools for web developers.

What will it take to succeed in the browser space?

The next successful browser will not win because of unique features.  With add-ons and extensions almost any feature can be added to any browser. Vivaldi is trying to push forward with excellent tab management for using a huge number of tabs, but this can be added to other browsers.  Edge touts its annotation features and minimalist design, but, once again, these can be added to other browsers. I believe three things will describe the next dominant browser. It will defined by speed. It will load pages quickly, do javascript quickly, and show videos quickly. Efficiency will be paramount. Chrome has earned a reputation as a memory hog.  The next browser winner will need to use as little memory and CPU as possible. This should be solvable, but both Firefox and Chrome eat memory. It will need to be easily extensible and theme-able. Whatever browser provides these will become dominant. Maybe it will be a future version of an existing browser or maybe it will come from somebody new.

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