Crazy like a Firefox?

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So there’s been a bit of Firefox news of late. First, everybody and their mother posted on the NY Times ad, then there was the actual NY Times article that discussed the gains the browser has made, and last we have Dave Winer highlighting an entry from John Robb. Both are asking the question that’s been on many people’s minds for a while:

At what level of market share (currently it is 89% and falling) does Micrsoft go into damage control and launch a crash program to rework IE? (link)

Now maybe it’s just the fact that I got zero sleep on the red eye from DIA last night, but I think Microsoft has an opportunity to really be creative here.

The conventional wisdom says that Microsoft is or will furiously reallocate resources to the IE team (and there have been some staffing changes already) to try and cement its still dominant position in the browser market. To be frank, this does seem to me to be the most likely approach based on Microsoft’s past history.

But is that the only possible Microsoft response? I don’t think so. The only realistic response, perhaps. But what if they were to support Firefox as a non-second class citizen, and offer it on equal footing with IE? Maybe even port Windows Update to it. Allow for a real apples to apples competition, may the best browser win. Heresy, I know. Still, consider the following:

  1. Microsoft’s behavior and product plans indicate that they do not view the browser as a strategic client anyway, so what have they to fear from Firefox? Maybe it’s an acceptable risk.
  2. If one accepts that Firefox is not a threat, it can then be viewed as an opportunity. Specifically, if Microsoft is looking for proof of their kinder, gentler ways, they’d be hard pressed to find a bigger, more visible proof point than supporting the open source browser that scored 12 million downloads for version 1.0.
  3. Supporting Firefox would certainly not have to mean an outright surrender in the broswer war. Indeed, it just might buy the PR breathing space needed to allow the IE team to do what it seems they have do – tear IE apart and start fresh.

Now despite my notable lack of sleep and the ludicrous nature of this proposal, I haven’t lost all my marbles just yet. I’m not saying the is probable, or really, even plausible given the current organizational context. What’s more, I don’t subscribe to the first point above, but of course the real question is – does Microsoft? And if so, what opportunities does that present?

From where I sit, it seems clear that Firefox is as much an opportunity as a threat for the Redmond software giant. It wouldn’t be a page from the typical Microsoft playbook, that’s for sure, but if the Times article’s tone is any indication, a change of tack might not be a bad thing.


  1. Absolutely. Something like this would be a fantastic PR move for Microsoft. With all the talk of blogging and dynamicism which is supposed to be changing Microsoft, it would be nice to see a really big gesture to prove that they are really thinking in a new way.

  2. my sentiments exactly. big PR win, relieves a current pressure spot, and is – in theory – not a threat to their strategic plans.

    doubt it'll happen, but would sure make things interesting.

  3. You're missing why we had the Browser Wars in the first place. It's all about getting the 95% of users who never change their home page to see Microsoft's page every day. Advertising revenue.

  4. well, you're right on one count – i hadn't thought of that. it is an interesting point – and although i'd debate the 95% number (my parents don't even use the default home page, and OEM's can set the page to what they want IIRC) – it is perhaps one that should be considered in the "Con" category with the others.

    that said, i think the potential PR gold mine that the move represents would outweigh the tactical loss of advertising revenue.

  5. You are right it could be a huge PR boost, but another scenario could be that MS will allow a solid presence in the market to help counter monopoly charges and claims.
    There is another consideration and that is the source of the 89% market share,US only? Based on figures from Europe, the Far East, Australasia, IE shares are still over 95%. It is a big market out there!

  6. I'm surprised at the comments here, that this is a good idea for MS, or that browser wars are about advertising. Browser wars are a platform play, pure and simple. Supporting firefox weakens the platform, the core of the MS business. It won't happen.

  7. Tony – agreed. it's similar to the argument Mary Jo Foley's making lately that says that an anti-MS decision from the EU would actually be beneficial.

    Andrew – i agree with you. but it's difficult to make the argument that MS still sees the browser as a strategic platform. they'll protect their turf if they feel threatened, but more out of obligation i think than any real sense of threat. in an Avalon world, the browser's importance is – in theory – lessened. add to that the fact that, as Scoble has noted, many are spending more time in their RSS reader, and it's easy to see how MS could convince themselves that the browser is not a critical platform anymore.

    i happen to agree with you, but as i mentioned, the question is whether or not MS does.

  8. I'm not really seeing why Microsoft should care that much about the, "Browser War," anymore. It's hard to see how they make any money off IE anymore. They don't consider it a strategic platform going forward. Why _should_ they invest any more than the minimum time and effort on IE.

    I think of IE as being in a simmilar boat to WordPad. It's there, it's part of the operating system, I can always use it. The only improvements it _requires_ are patches for security holes discovered since it's release. Anything else is just fluff and a potential for more security holes.

    One other thing that most of the 12 million people that downloaded FireFox haven't considered is that IE is in fact much more stable and arguably more secure than FireFox. The only reason I would ever (have ever) used FireFox is that it has some features IE does not have, and it's also free (just like IE.) Other than that, it's has newer (unproven) code, many more features (more surface area for attack) and isn't as tighly integrated with the security systems built in the operating system, which Microsoft has a good reason to support.

  9. Stephen, go ahead and make the argument that the browser is still strategically important to Microsoft.

    I'll agree with you.

  10. Tony Bishop: if you've got statistics, please link to them.

    Sorry for being cautious, but browser statistics are possibly the most made up or misunderstood figures in the history of statistics (and that's saying a lot).

  11. Chris – Microsoft's behavior would indicate that they agree with you that the browser isn't a strategic platform. i disagree, and it would appear Bruce does as well, but MS would appear not to. the difference between wordpad and IE for me is simple: there are many examples today of network applications that are rich in functionality (Gmail, Flickr, Amazon Light 4.0, etc) but delivered seamlessly over the thin client. that makes the browser an important platform in my eyes.

    Bruce: here's the link making that argument – http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady/archives/000171.ht

    Jussi: agreed. at RedMonk, we actually have something of an aversion to statistics in general b/c many of them are flawed, and thrown around carelessly. browser stats are no exception to that rule.

  12. Stephen, I guess I was too subtle with my post.

    I'm the one of the development team managers on IE at Microsoft. I agree that IE is a strategic platform for Microsoft.

    Browsers are important because browsing is what people do. It's not more complex than that.

  13. Jussi, you were absolutely right to exercise caution about the stats I quoted – stats in this area are hopelessly inadequate at best, downright fallacious at worst. Sadly my source, a UK magazine was no better, once I dug deeper. The figures were based on a random survey of ISP's in Europe, and taking magazine lead times out, meant Firefox numbers reflected only two weeks of the latest version, and specifically did not include most of the major ISP's. Apologies to all. It would be somewhat helpful if Google would re-activate publishing the 'browser share' figures through Google Search.

  14. Bruce: ah, that does shed a new light on your comments. and as you may have guessed from my comments, i agree with you – IE is a strategic platform. but given the evidence – IE's lack of new features and innovations, and the talk in some quarters of MSFT of Avalon/Amazon clients and RSS readers usurping the footprint – can you say that MSFT as an organization shares your view?

    Tony: thx for the clarification. i try to take a balanced view on the topic – based on most of the metrics i see, Firefox has made serious inroads into IE territory and is trending up. that said, IE is still far and away the dominant platform and likely to be there for a while.

  15. I'm only going to speak for myself, not for Microsoft. Otherwise I fear what I say will show up as a [mis]quote on CNet, say. Then my friend Dave Massy will give me grief like how I tease him over being portrayed as the savior of the IE team last summer.

    What do you mean by "lack of new features"? What about IE in XPSP2, where we delivered a host of new security-oriented features? A few of them are UI features, such as Manage Add-ons, the Popup Blocker, and the changes around ActiveX installation and download monitoring. Others are internal, such as local machine lockdown as well as many root cause mitigations for various types of potential exploits.

    But if you're looking for innovation, well, IMHO that has been scarcely seen in web browsers in quite a few years. Check out iRider for something I thought had an interesting, even "innovative" approach.

  16. Bruce.. I'm sorry, I'm using W2k. What enhancements are you referring to? 😉

    Unfair, I know. As a web developer, I personally welcomed the one-browser-world, but only because it made my life easier. In particular, Netscape 4 made my life difficult. A IE6/Firefox world would be slightly worse than an all one-browser world, but infinitely better than the IE5/NN4 world of the past. But, I do believe the IE team (sorry Bruce, if this seems unfair) has rested on their laurels too long and I do hope that Firefox puts the fire under their butts again.

  17. True about W2K. If you're running Win2K (or Win95, or Win98, or WinMe, for that matter) you don't get the latest and greatest IE. Point is that there are new features in IE.

    BTW, the IE in Windows Server 2003 SP1 and the XP 64 bit editions will have the XPSP2 feature set.

    It's certainly true that there was a time when IE didn't get enough attention, but that time is long past. I didn't join the IE team until 7 months ago, when the team was nearing the end of XPSP2 work. I spotted no resting on laurels, instead there were a lot of people deeply engaged on the problems at hand.

  18. gotta love readers that beat me to the punch. Zk.net (thx Zk) nicely highlighted what would have been my first response – essentially that a whole raft of users will never see any of those new "features."

    but to be honest i find the use of the word "features" extremely problematic.

    take Popup blocker. this would have classified as a new feature about 2 years ago. not now. as you're no doubt aware, competing products have had this for quite a while. to me, this was more about plugging a product hole.

    or what about ActiveX installation and blocking? i'd lump those more in the category of correcting an old design mistake than new feature. ditto for the other security improvements. remember that these don't actually improve the actually improve the users browsing experience, they simply prevent things from going wrong.

    look, i'm not religious about this – i happily jumped from Netscape to IE when IE became the better browser, and were i still on Windows, would happily jump back if you improved IE. see the link here (http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady/archives/000016.html) for why i switched.

    but c'mon, you can't sit there with a straight face and tell me that in 4 years, the addition of the "features" you mentioned is honestly a competitive effort, can you?

    it'd be very nice to hear someone from MS actually admit that tabbed browsing is actually a very nice – although certainly not revolutionary – addition to the browsing experience. instead we get commentary like the following:

    Steve Vamos, Microsoft Australia's managing director:

    "I don't agree that just because a (competing) product has a feature that we don't have, that feature is important," he said. "It is not. It is only important if it is a feature the customer wants. There are plenty of products out there with features we don't have. We have plenty of features that our customers don't use."

    Ben English, Microsoft's security and management product manager:

    "I don't believe it is a true statement that IE doesn't have the features that our customers want," he said. "We take user feedback very seriously. If you have that feedback, then you should feed it back to us because we will feed it to the product team."

    (link http://news.com.com/Microsoft+says+Firefox+not+a+

    as for Mr. Massy, say hi for me. he was kind enough to weigh in here (http://www.redmonk.com/sogrady/archives/000057.html) with some comments on just the article you mentioned, i think.

  19. Stephen, you're right that there is a whole raft of users that won't see the features we added to IE for XPSP2 – people who aren't using XPSP2. When our next platforms ship, they'll have the SP2 level IE as well.

    The purpose of the XPSP2 release was security; the features the IE team added are security features. IE in XPSP2 was not intended to be a competitive response to features in other browsers. Sure, the popup blocker was last to market. It's fine by me if you want to define what we added as "filling holes", or design mistake corrections, or preventing things from going wrong, or even minor functional alterations. Regardless of semantics, our customers have a better and more secure browsing experience because of what we added to XPSP2.

    English and Vamos have nothing to do with the IE team. What these two guys in Australia said is not informed by what we're doing on the IE team so their comments give no special insight. You shouldn't take what they said as representative of anything but ill-advised comments by two people who probably should have known better.

    As for tabbed browsing, I like it. It's a nice addition to the browsing experience. And since I actually am in a position where my opinion matters (unlike our Australian executives) that should carry more weight.

  20. perhaps you're correct bruce, in that they don't (or rather shouldn't) speak for the IE team.

    but it still perplexes me to hear IE folks talk about all the added features in IE when it still lacks the most fundamental, IMO, in tabbed browsing.

    to that point, what do you use – IE or Maxthon?

  21. At work, my main browser (60%+ usage) is IE on either an internal Longhorn build or XPSP2. I frequently use other browsers as well, some Gecko based, some IE based, and some that use a different rendering engine. I also use various UI prototypes that host the IE components.

    At home, I try to have a browser of the week, cycling through a bunch of odd browsers and IE hosts as well as the usual suspects. I'm not going to name names, because I'd leave someone out, or get misinterpreted and/or misquoted. "So good, even IE's development manager recommends it instead of Internet Explorer !!!!"

    My family mostly uses MSN Explorer from MSN Premium which provides content filtering, integrated mail client, etc. Before I joined IE, I was a development manager on the MSN Client team working on the various features in MSN Explorer, mostly browsing but also things like Photo Email.

  22. Okay, Bruce, so XPSP2 wasn't about competitive features or innovation for IE. I can dig that. I agree that it has delivered a better and safer browsing experience (although I don't think it is as enjoyable or safe as Firefox)

    So my question is: will the browser (IE, OS-integrated, or something else) for Longhorn have actual new features? Will it have a rendering engine that implements all of CSS 2.1, PNG transparencies or even some CSS 3?

    I don't want details (okay, I do, but I don't expect them). I just want to hear that this will happen

    Stephen, sorry if this is hijacking your thread, but it seemed to be veering in this direction, anyway

  23. Well it looks like Bill G has been reading this thread?… (16/02/05)

    Gates promises free antispyware, new version of IE

    Microsoft by midyear plans to release a test version of a new Internet Explorer (IE) browser that better protects users from scams and malicious code while surfing the Web, the company announced Tuesday. http://www.computerworld.com.au/index.php?id=7781

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