Brace for Another Skirmish in the Browser Wars

No, it's not 1999. Browser-device integration could heighten standards fights more than ever.

My main browser is Firefox. 3.5.7 for Linux, to be exact.

Yes, I know, who cares? A good chunk of the world uses Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Opera--the class of browsers I typically refer to as Anything But Internet Explorer.

I felt compelled to mention this today because over the weekend, I shifted my browsing emphasis back to Firefox from Google's Chrome browser for Linux, which I had been using as my primary browser for the past couple of months.

The reason for the return was an increasing dissatisfaction with Chrome as a stable browser. Now, Chrome on Linux is a beta browser, so I know darn well that instability is the name of the game. For 99 percent of my typical browser activity, Chrome was doing just fine. Better than fine: I like the Chrome interface for extensions and given the number of Google searches I perform on a given day, I appreciated the in-line search function in the URL field.

The Chrome browser error window
But things have changed of late. First, my work on the Internet has shifted to a lot more administrative and configuration work on Joomla! sites, and Chrome and the Joomla! back-end don't always play well together, particularly the WYSIWYG HTML editors. Second, the latest beta release for Chrome for Linux recently came out and suddenly I was seeing a lot more of the screen at right as I randomly browsed.

[Note to Google: while I am hip to what the 1337 youngsters out on the Net are digging, this screen? Not so helpful. It reminds me of the old Macintosh death screen and is just about as useful.]

This recent little speed bump on the information superhighway reminded me that more than ever, we are placing a lot of faith in our browsers. I know I do... I would estimate that personally 80 percent of my computing time is on the Internet, and it would be more if I started using cloud-based office suites.

I am not trying to set up Chrome as the target of a diatribe. While I had some issues with it recently, certainly beta-related, I fully recognize that no browser is completely perfect. I hold Firefox as a pretty good model for overall stability and security, but I've made Firefox crash before, and likely will again.

More accurately: web sites I have visited have made Firefox crash before, and likely will again.

And there, my friends, is the problem--especially as we move more and more towards the cloud-based computing, where apps live on that proverbial series of tubes and all we need is a browser to accomplish all of our tasks.

So, what do we do when our browsers break? Or, again, the websites we visit break them? On a desktop environment, our options are clear: try another browser. What breaks Chrome may not break Firefox or (if I'm feeling really desperate) Firefox for Windows from a virtual machine. Sooner or later, most desktop users can figure out how to view a site that has no clue how to use standards-based code.

But, what about the rising class of netbook users, who will be using very streamlined, efficient machines that only have one browser interface, which also happens to be the main application interface? I'm pretty sure that even if it becomes possible, it's not going to be a picnic to switch, say, ChromeOS's primary interface from Chrome to Firefox.

There are two ways to avoid kind of trouble. First: build better browsers. Which everyone is doing anyway. It's the second solution that's going to be much harder to implement: choosing the standard from which to work.

It has been widely thought that since the success of Firefox, the browser wars had cooled down to general background noise. Yes, occasionally there's the little spat as someone from the Mozilla team drinks a little too much of the Kool-aid and starts mocking Internet Explorer for, well, let's face it, there's so much to mock, isn't there?

Right now, I am seeing a coming conflict that will hearken back to the bad old days of the Browser Wars, and once again it will be based on standards, just like when Netscape Navigator went head-to-head with Internet Explorer. Who says we never learn anything from history? Oh, wait, I just did.

There's a lot of examples where the standards battle will be fought, but one of the most prominent is the face-off between those who like Flash and those who will push towards a more open standard format for video on the Internet.

I should note that as an end-user, I don't have many problems with Flash. It usually works in every browser I use, I can watch YouTube and Hulu videos as I'd like, and that's all I need. But there's a lot of developers that have a real issue with Flash, and rightly so. It's closed, so you have to use a limited set of editors and creations tools that can use Adobe's format. Technically, Flash can be troublesome to run correctly--as those of use who've had a memory leak from a bad Flash animation will attest.

The concerns about Flash recently came to a more public like when Steve Jobs presented the vaunted iPad--which doesn't even run Flash. Last week, Jobs went on the attack against Flash, reportedly citing Flash as one of the main reasons for OS X crashes, and then claiming that Flash would soon be obsolete anyway, thanks to the coming HTML5 standard, which will feature video support.

Most developers would support that line of reasoning, if Jobs weren't being a little disingenuous. That's because supporters of HTML5 video are a more than a little divided on what video format the standard will ultimately support. It was down to the Ogg Theora video format, but late in 2007, the spec was updated to allow for other formats, and currently the H.264/MPEG-4 AVC is the big contender.

It should be noted that as of this writing, H.264 is not yet supported by Firefox, nor can it be run in IE without the Google Chrome Frame. Guess which big hardware vendor names after a fruit is among the big H.264 supporters?

In the past, this kind of standards contention was at worse a nuisance. If you ran across an IE-only site, you would just fire up (shudder!) IE. But with cloud-based computing putting so much emphasis on the browser-interface-as-app-platform, any kind of standards fight could likely cause big problems for cloud users.

Which would bring harsher words than "Aw, snap!"

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