Microsoft should dig into the WebKit to stop Google from framing IE

Internet Explorer is in a state of crisis so severe that Microsoft may yet lose most of the browser market territory claimed during the browser wars. Microsoft has no choice but to make a leap of development faith, by abandoning the IE rendering engine and releasing new WebKit-based desktop and mobile browsers. IE is a dead platform. It's long past time for Microsoft to end its "Weekend at Ernie's" behavior.

What a difference a decade makes. Ten years ago, Microsoft won the browser wars with Netscape, only to abandon the territory after Internet Explorer 6 launched. Many end users are still stuck in the IE 6 past, whether it's the browser directly or progeny Internet Explorer 7 or 8. According to Net Applications, IE 6 usage share is higher than either of the newer versions. Perhaps IE's market position would be better had Microsoft not let browser development lay idle until after Mozilla started working on Firefox about six years ago. AOL and Mozilla reignited browser development because of paid search -- that Google box -- as did several other software developers. AOL eventually gave up on Netscape, but Apple, Mozilla and Opera continued developing browsers.

Google entered the market just a year ago and already has released three versions of browser Chrome. The speed of Chrome development is eerily familiar. Microsoft rat-tat-tat released new browser versions in 1996 and 1997, going from IE 2 to IE 4. Through IE 6, Microsoft released new versions every year. In the new browser wars, Google is to Microsoft as Microsoft was to Netscape in the late 1990s. Microsoft fought to protect its Windows platform. Similarly, Google is fighting to protect its search and informational platform. If will determines winners, Google has got it over Microsoft.

Framing IE for Posterity

Matters bad are worse, with Google's Chrome Frame announcement and Microsoft's weak position in the mobile browser market, where WebKit-based Chrome and Safari rapidly gain users. Chrome Frame, which has just entered beta, is an Internet Explorer plug-in supporting HTML and JavaScript, among other technologies or tags. Google is trying to redefine Internet Explorer on terms that suit its product and platform objectives. It's Google's most ambitious drive into Microsoft controlled territory ever, even more than desktop search, Exchange email sync or toolbar products/services.

For Microsoft, Chrome Frame and forthcoming Google Wave are a looming crisis of IE's character, as expressed in end-user features and the browser's appeal -- or lack thereof -- to developers. By Framing Internet Explorer, Google seizes control of the end user experience away from Microsoft. If Google can succeed widely distributing Frame, the easy step is next: Moving those same users to Chrome.

Chrome browser usage share doesn't seem like much -- 2.84 percent -- according to Net Applications. But that's up from zero a year ago. Meanwhile, Internet Explorer usage share continues a long slow decline -- 66.97 percent in August down from from 79.49 percent about two years ago. Firefox is up from 15.45 percent to 22.98 percent during the same time period.

If Chrome Frame succeeds, Firefox could easily be collateral damage. Firefox uage gains have largely come from Internet Explorer, which if Framed could give up many fewer users. Meanwhile, should Google succeed moving end users en masse from Framed IE to Chrome, Firefox growth likely would stall and over time recede. Looked at that way, Chrome Frame poses potentially more risk to Firefox than IE. Remember, Mozilla is dependent on Google paid search revenue through the browser.

Frame would be a seemingly small problem, if not for:

  • The surge in competing browsers
  • Monetization of browsers around search
  • Increasing demand for browsers on mobile devices
  • Declining developer interest in IE technologies like ActiveX
  • Increasing developer interest in other Web browsers or technologies

Microsoft won the browser wars by several means, with establishment of IE as a development platform being one of the most important. Today, other than businesses with legacy dependencies, is there really any core developer interest in Internet Explorer? That's a question for comment; please pipe in on the topic.

Apple, Google and Mozilla are doing much better wooing new developers to their browsers, and, again, Chrome and Safari are based on WebKit, whether for desktop or mobile device. Mobile applications are the future, and it's there Microsoft looks surprisingly pale before brawny Apple and Google. Regarding Google, that's without factoring Chrome OS, which could directly rival Windows.

Commercial Open-Source is the Solution

Microsoft should answer WebKit for WebKit, by releasing a new browser based on a new rendering engine; put on the IE brand and ship it for desktop and mobile. For businesses and consumers that need backward compatibility, there would be IE 8. But people wanting something new and fresh or developers looking to do cool development could choose the new IE, which Microsoft should tout for its standards support.

Something else: Such an approach would be in line with Microsoft's so-called "Interoperability Principles." Additionally, about two weeks ago, Microsoft opened the CodePlex Foundation, which is supposed to bridge commercial and open-source software development. WebKit may be open source, but the practical development comes from commercial developers like Apple and Google. Microsoft could extend WebKit, much as Apple has done with Safari and drive standards around it. Example: Silverlight integration.

Bundling IE with Windows certainly helped Microsoft win the browser wars, but the company did much more, such as either developing or coming to effectively control emerging Web standards during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Microsoft isn't really driving Web standards today. A commercially developed WebKit browser, supporting HTML 5 and other standards, would strengthen Microsoft's position of influence against Apple, Google, Mozilla and other developers supporting open-source browsing engines. Done right, WebKit-based IE could even steal marketshare from other open-source browsers. IE's 67 percent usage share is helluva starting place.

By releasing WebKit-based IE, Microsoft could also:

  • Offer a better IE alternative to users than Google Frame
  • Nip the Google Chrome bud before it grows any meaningful usage share
  • Quickly bring to market a competitive mobile browser and development platform
  • Increase IE's appeal among developers and to governments demanding open-source development
  • Better support emerging Microsoft Web technologies that do interest developers, such as Silverlight
  • Level the compatibility and performance playing field with open-source browsers, such as Chrome and Firefox
  • Unload from developers Windows baggage -- legacy technologies like ActiveX and constraints for backward compatibility

Left unchecked, Google will take Internet Explorer and Frame it. Perhaps Apple and Mozilla will break the glass. Microsoft is posed to become the Netscape of the 2010s, otherwise. Microsoft must act to preserve and even reclaim territory taken during the browser wars. There's still time, but not for long.

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