Firefox Friday: the homogenization of browsers and the death of innovation
Once upon a time, difference was revered. Heck, I still think people, deep down, admire difference. It takes guts and balls and nerve to stand out from the crowd, to stand up for the ideas and paradigms that are important to us. Being truly different -- doing something that no one has done before -- pushes boundaries. I'm not talking about wearing eyeliner because the other kids are doing it; I'm talking about innovation.
That's the very definition of 'risk'. Turning up to work in a short skirt is risky. Investing your money in a new venture is risky. Working on something without the promise of an immediate gain (financial or otherwise), is risk incarnate. But despite the chance of failure, and the associated loss of face or funds, we still take risks -- why? Individuals and corporations invest millions of man hours and billions of dollars into innovation every year. In many cases they risk everything for one big pay-off.
Often that pay-off never comes. Start-ups and garden-shed inventors come and go with nary a ripple made in the global market. But does that stop the next generation from risking their chips on a single throw of the die?
No. Human nature dictates that we get up and try again -- unless you're a web browser developer, of course. In that case you're one of those kids that reads magazines to find out this month's eyeliner trend. The major browsers are hopping over each other to be the cool kid in school, while the science lab goes unoccupied and innovation all but ceases.
In 2009, between the five big browsers -- Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari and Opera -- we saw a grand total of three new, never-before-seen features: Chrome Frame (pretty cool, and a great way to free those poor sods that are locked into IE6); HTML 5 support (as we've seen since the start of 2010, this is going to be a big thing this year); and... wait, that's it. There is no third. In 2009 we saw two new innovations in browser technology.
But it's now 2010. Chrome and its rapid development demands a lot of attention, but its only real addition to the field has been per-tab processes. Firefox is treading water and borrowing from Chrome's open source code to stay afloat -- JetPack is the next big thing, but it's still a ways off. Opera, after becoming freeware in 2005, has almost frozen its feature list and is simply focused on improving its performance -- they churn out good browsers, but where has the innovation and creativity gone?
Classically, users can't desire something new, something they've never seen before. We can whine about stability, or speed, but we don't ask for things that don't exist -- and thus the browser has become a platform, rather than a tool. Websites and apps now dictate browser innovation, when really it should be a symbiotic relationship, with ideas flowing in both directions. Mozilla, instead of sticking to its guns and innovating, is playing into Google's hands by copy-catting Chrome -- Google wants a platform. Google, unlike Firefox, is a large corporate entity that needs a platform for its web apps and Chrome OS. Firefox needs to be different, but is too afraid to push in its chips and take a risk. Your market share is going to continue dwindling, Mozilla; do something about it!
The only real risk-taker left in the field is Microsoft... but it too wants a platform for the Office 2010 web apps! The browser, in 2010, will become a slow-moving, stability-and-security-comes-first operating system. With the maturity of the Internet comes the inexorable maturity of the browser: back in 1996, the dreaded Blink and Marquee tags were considered proprietary inventions of Netscape and Microsoft; today... shit, I can hardly tell the difference between the browsers. I use them all interchangeably. The web browser has never been less pertinent than it is today.
Looking forward, 2010 could still be bright. Mozilla's JetPack needs to get a move on, and Opera must continue to push HTML5. Perhaps, if we're lucky, Microsoft will risk it and roll Pivot into IE9. That'd be some actual innovation. Woah.