Web Technology

Browser Innovation Occurs in Cycles

Who are the most innovative browser-makers right now?

  • If you’re hip and trendy, you’ll probably say Google (and you’re right).
  • If you’re a bit of a techie, I bet you’ll say Mozilla (also a good choice).
  • And if you’re an honest web developer, you’ll say Microsoft (equally correct).

I’m sure there’s enough flamebait in that list to start a dynamic discussion, but I’ve got another question first:

Who were the most innovative browser-makers ten years ago?

The list looks something like this:

  • Apple (back when they were unpopular).
  • Mozilla (pre-Firefox).
  • Opera (obviously).
  • A whole raft of independent developers.

Notice anything?

The current wave of browser innovation is driven by the big players.

You can complain all you want about the travesties Microsoft has wrought upon the development community, but they pioneered in-browser GPU-acceleration with IE9.

Chrome and Firefox hardly need justification. The number of features they’ve introduced that are now must-haves is staggering. (Pinned tabs, tabs-on-top, private browsing, and built-in debugging tools, just to name a few.)

But it wasn’t always this way.

The previous wave of browser innovation was all about the little guys.

Before the days of iPods and Macbooks, Apple was struggling to keep OSX afloat. Many called their decision to make a browser a mistake, but Safari 1.0 was a boon for the web’s widening world. That’s where webkit got its roots, and we’ve been blessed with the fruits of its labour ever since.

Mozilla was making a browser by its own name, with platform-specific spin-offs like Camino and K-Meleon. The trials and tribulations of the heavyset gecko platform encouraged a culture of ruthless javascript performance improvement — a culture which still thrives to this day.

Opera was the de facto non-Microsoft choice at the time, and did wonders for open standards. As much as we like to take this for granted, there was a very real time in the early 2000s where every website had to be written twice; once specifically for IE, and once for all other browsers.

Then there were the independents. The Shiiras and the Avants. The stepping stones that lead to the giants we surf the web with today. Each contributed to a better web. A stronger web! And we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

But how did we get there in the first place?

The rise of small-time browsers was driven by a number of forces:

  • The late 90s were ruled by then-juggernauts Netscape and Microsoft.
  • Internet Explorer began devouring market share, and users wanted alternatives.
  • When Netscape folded, it (thankfully) left behind a rich, open-source codebase.

Then, as the browser evolved from geeky toy to application that everyone needs, the costs associated with developing and maintaining a modern, working codebase soared. Suddenly the hodgepodge teams working out of basement apartments couldn’t compete, and the rest is history.

So the cycle so far has looked something like this:

Big Juggernauts → Low-budget Developers → Major Companies

What can we expect to see going forward?

I don’t see an indy-browser renaissance on the horizon. Lately it’s been the opposite: we’ve lost Flock, Opera is flailing, and the myriad of mobile browsers haven’t mustered but a whimper against their built-in counterparts — a far cry from the independent revolution discussed above.

The competition between the current super-powers is more than enough to keep us in an innovative state, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.


What will the next wave of browsers look like? How will they gain traction? Where will the innovation come from?

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