It is hard to imagine, but I am sure someone out there is still using Internet Explorer, though I cringe every time to even think someone on Mac OS X would even dare open up IE 5, but I am sure that still occurs once and a while. I have been running Deer Park (Firefox 1.5) for a few weeks now on Windows, but on Mac OS X, I still use Safari about 60% of the time, with Firefox coming a close second. With Apple updating Safari recently I started thinking about what makes a browser useful and popular among those of us who get in six plus hours of internet browsing a day?
Updates Versus Stable Fixed Releases
Undeniably there has to be a certain mystique of freshness. But no application can ever stay at .9 or even at 1.0 for very long. Progressive users want progressive upgrades, in a sense this is what is missing from Apple’s Safari and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. Now I am not talking so much about feature load, no one wants to load a browser that is overblown with features, but tech-savy users do in fact crave constant updates. Firefox and Mozilla come in stable releases and in nightly builds that anyone can try out. Thus the constant updates helps build the mystique and momentum that makes the stable fixed releases even more popular.
If Apple and Microsoft adopted this same two-fold release schedule, I am sure it would have the same effect on their browsers, but since both browsers come pre-installed on their respective operating systems already, it would seem rather unnecessary to mimic Firefox and Mozilla, when you already have an audience, right? User base is one thing, perception is quite another. The Deer Park Alphas have shown something new in Firefox, namely that the browser is not so much being reinvented, but that it is being fine tuned for a generation of internet users who want simplicity and expandibility in ways that previous users never imagined. What is happening is that while Apple is great at user interface and Microsoft is great at adding features, neither of them is great at both. Firefox is trying to do both, along with everything else, and while the 1.0 release was short on many areas, the 1.5 release is a remarkable improvement on everything.
Expandibility, Letting Others Show You A Better Way
Outside of the nightly builds, Firefox has something unique, it has a community of extension and theme authors that are expanding Firefox beyond the shell it is, and while not all the additions make sense, they are in fact building a community. The word community, emphasizing trust, because although you can download toolbars for IE and other such add-ons, not very many users have trust in these packages. Firefox’s association with opensource also helps attract more users to its extensions and themes, because even if Microsoft and other closed-source developers would like to argue, the truth is that most people trust opensource projects more than they trust commercial closed-source products.
The presence of an active and contributing third party community is really essential in making the browser attractive. This is what Safari really needs in order to gain more momentum in the market. Note the initiative that Apple took in pushing the popularity of Mac OS X Tiger Dashboard Widgets. Why could they not do this for Safari? Is not the browser the number one application these days?
Authoring Tools Needed
Perhaps the last piece of the puzzle for a popular browser is the one which no one has quite really mastered yet, which is the authoring tools. The web may seem infinitely more open today because of bloggers and their constant typing of editorials, thoughts, and news items, but what made blogging popular in the first place was not new technology, but accessible tools. The online publishing revolution has not even begun. Internet users still need better tools than WordPress and Dreamweaver. All this time the browser makers have spent their time making the web page render better and in more interesting ways, but what makes the web more dynamic is when the user actually publishes and not just sits there browsing. The browser will eventually need to become the publishing tool as well, and maybe that is what has been missing most of all.