In a previous post, I explained why I think that Firefox does not stand a chance against Microsoft Explorer. I won’t comment on some hysterical reactions to this post of some open source extremists who accused me of all things – their excess and insults only undermine the "cause" they serve. Despite this, an interesting discussion was launched and I take comfort to see that some Web sites also question Firefox’s potential ability to dislodge Explorer. To sum up, my reasoning is that Firefox, despite its qualities, is not a radical improvement over Explorer. MIcrosoft hasn’t improved Explorer for years, secure in its monopoly after the Netscape battle. But as a result of the new pressure created by Firefox, it will only take a big effort from Microsoft – something they’re expert at – to catch up and introduce a new release that offers security, stability and ease of use. As a result, Firefox’s advantage will be reduced if not suppressed. Devoted open source militant will not switch back to Explorer for sure, but how many are they? Based on this I ventured to conclude that Firefox would not succeed against Explorer, except in some niches. Having said that, Microsoft faces an interesting dilemma with Explorer, and the future of Firefox might well depend on how the Redmond firm will solve it…
The future of Internet Explorer can indeed be seen in two ways:
– either Microsoft considers that Explorer is a product by itself, in which case there should be a multi-platform strategy with versions for other platforms than Windows, such as Linux, Unix, and Macintosh.
– or Microsoft sees Explorer as part of Windows, in which case only a version for Windows will be available.
Hence the dilemma: in the first case, Microsoft, after the introduction of a new, vastly improved IE7, regains the advantage over Firefox, and leverages its multiplatform approach to (re)claim the universality of its dominance. On Linux, one can be sceptical of its success, but that might be different on the Mac, despite the fact that Apple now has its own browser. With this approach, Microsoft accepts that Windows comes second in its strategy, and adopts an Internet Explorer strategy per se. That is something, however, that the company has always refused to do.
In the second case, Microsoft focuses on Windows at the expense of Explorer. That is the position that the company has always defended, claiming that Explorer is an integral part of the operating system. In this case, Microsoft leaves the door open to competitors on other platforms. This choice carries big risks, because then Firefox becomes the only browser available on all platforms, and a completely multiplatform product has great appeal on the market. Having said that, it is also very complex to maintain, as Netscape’s experience has shown. Maintaining this strategy will be a challenge for the already challenged Mozilla foundation.
This Microsoft debate is not new, in fact. This battle raged inside the company between 1997 and 2000, as told by journalist David Bank in his 2001 book "Breaking Windows". Bank reveals the bitter fight between the Windows "hawks" and the Internet "doves", supporting an opening of the Microsof products to non-Windows platforms. Eventually, the hawks prevailed and the doves disbanded.
But the story doesn’t end there, because Firefox forces Microsoft to reopen the debate. Beating Firefox on Windows shouldn’t be too difficult: except for die-hard open source militants, Windows users will have no qualms switching back to Explorer when a new, decent version is available. The question is whether Microsoft will want to extend the battle beyond Windows onto other platforms, where the situation is less favorable. I tend to think they wil go for the All-Windows strategy, because it’s what they’ve donc in the past, and because I find it difficult to imagine a Linux version of Explorer. Would they? Interesting to note that the same question can be asked about the Office suite of application.
Having said all this, the browser does not have the strategic importance it had back in 1997. At that time, Netscape’s ambition was to replace the operating system’s interface with the browser’s, something that was sure to trigger Microsoft’s wrath. But that didn’t happen, and the browser is now just a regular application, albeit an important one, and the OS’s interface still prevails. With this in mind, is it so important whether the user browses with Firefox or Explorer? Probably not, even from Microsoft’s point of view. As long as its core Windows business is not threatened, the stakes for Microsoft are not so high. In that sense, the hopes that Firefox will undermine Microsoft’s domination are probably misplaced: the fight is big, popular and exciting, but the stakes are low.