Hot on HuffPost Tech:

See More Stories
Engadget for the iPhone: download the app now
AOL Tech

Firefox's popularity repeats Microsoft's dominating mistakes all over again

It's fairly inarguable that Firefox needs to exist. Going back just a few years ago to when Mozilla introduced what would quickly become their flagship browser, much of the internet was in the equivalent of the digital dark ages. Netscape was struggling along after Internet Explorer had successfully derailed its efforts years ago, but even IE was suffering from a stagnating development process and an industry that was trying to move forward with efforts in standards and compatibility. Sure, Opera was always on the outer fringes, but its market share hasn't really seen much of the leap that its devoted following believes it deserves.

Along comes Firefox in 2004, and everything changes. Netscape drops even farther off the list of many a user, and Internet Explorer begins slowly, but steadily, losing market share to the open source Mozilla alternative that opened up the public's eye to the wonders of extensions and add-ons. It is at this moment in time, however, when Firefox also began to slowly replace Internet Explorer as a dominant and, in some ways, proprietary force on the web.

In 2007, Firefox certainly hasn't destroyed IE's market share, but it sure has made a dent. While that's a positive thing in the name of choice and the triumph of good software, Firefox has quite possibly made a negative impact on the development of web sites and software when viewed in the context of accessibility. Think about it: before Firefox, most websites were not only 'optimized' for IE, you pretty much had to view them in IE if you wanted to see anything more than the equivalent of an unfinished jigsaw puzzle blown apart with a shotgun. Even though it could be argued that web design standards have come quite a ways since then (and they certainly have), the damage done from Firefox's wild popularity among the tech savvy (and even not-so-savvy) primarily lies in this new frontier of web apps and services.


Context

The web was originally conceived to deliver information in a format that anyone with an internet-connected device can read. Certainly, we've come quite a ways since then with virtually any kind of device accessing the web and sporting any size screen, but complex web apps and services like StumbleUpon, Clipmarks and even del.icio.us occupy an entirely new space altogether. These web apps aren't necessarily vital to the common internet user, but they still are services delivered (or in the case of the fantastic new del.icio.us Firefox add-on: greatly enhanced) over the medium of the web - as long as you're only using IE or Firefox.

Examples

Take Clipmarks, for example. With a unique approach to the website clipping, bookmarking and sharing experience, the only way to partake in their services is by installing an extension that exclusively runs on IE or Firefox. StumbleUpon is even worse in this regard: not only are their services designed to work with a toolbar for Firefox alone, but significant portions of account management - including changing one's password - can only be done through the toolbar; there is no way to change your StumbleUpon password unless you are using Firefox with the StumbleUpon toolbar installed.

Discuss

Without doubt, it is valid to question how important or meaningless these browser/plug-in constraints are. While it is likely that the general user won't take much of an interest in many of these web apps, the fact still remains that these companies are shunning web standards and accessibility in the creation of their services. In effect, we have transitioned from a period where web design, apps and services required Internet Explorer to function, into an age where they require Internet Explorer or Firefox to function. An improvement? Certainly, and especially for the large portion of internet users who are browsing with an OS other than Windows. This is not an improvement, however, if one values accessibility, standards and browser agnostic services.

The solution? It's hard to say. Many will be quick to point out the now-famous quote which sums up a good portion of a rebuttal: "I love web standards; there's so many to chose from." And in a big way, they would be right. Different browsers feature different rendering engines which all treat HTML, CSS, JavaScript and dynamic web languages in subtly different, though often significant ways. Could a 'universal add-on' format ever make it to our desktops? Not likely. Should we start pushing JavaScript bookmarklets as the way to provide these services and allow virtually everyone to play along (especially considering that, for example, much of Clipmarks' functionality has been replicated well in the Tumblr bookmarklet)? That probably isn't it either, considering that JavaScript is admittedly far limited when compared to the power of true software extensions.

Who knows: maybe there isn't a solution, and maybe there doesn't need to be one. The rest of the world is getting along fine without using StumbleUpon, while the vital services like Google and Wikipedia are plenty accessible without the need for fancy extensions or even bookmarklets. Still, the discussion surrounding the direction of the web and these highly specialized and still-proprietary web apps and services is one that should be more out in the open - as long as the forums and blogs that house the discussion can be used in more than just Firefox, of course.

Tags: accessibility, clipmarks, css, del.icio.us, firefox, html, microsoft, mozilla, standards, stumbleupon, tumblr

Comments

23