Half Lives

I’m headed to Austin soon for spring break SxSWi, and this year I’m lucky and grateful to be representing Chrome on the always-packed browser panel (more usable Lanyrd talk page here). The context for this year’s panel is interesting to me — a couple of years into a renewed era of browser competition, users have more choice but developers are still struggling with the same landscape, even as HTML5 starts to materialize as the platform of choice for most apps — even the ones wrapped up in native wrappers to jump the various app-store-form distribution hurdles.

It’s good to see MSFT belatedly trying to put IE6 out to pasture, but what about IE 7? Or 8? Lets take stock of where we really are and where we’re likely to be in the next couple of years. First, remember that there’s no IE 9 for Windows XP — an OS that’s currently the most popular in the world — and no matter what happens with IE 6, IE 8 is the end of the upgrade road for XP. Unless you think half of the world’s computers will be replaced/upgraded in the next couple of years, it seems likely that IE 8 will be with us for the foreseeable future.

And what about the folks who do get IE 9? Well, so far, there’s nothing to make me believe that the uptake rate will be anything better than the IE 8 transition; a process which has taken 2 years to give ~30% of the market the latest version. If anything, we should expect that rate to be retarded somewhat by the XP hurdle.

MSFT’s browser replacement rates bear understanding because they’re the most popular and suffer from the longest half-lives. That is to say, the time it takes for an old version of IE to decay in the wild is much, much higher than for other browsers. Some part of this is surely due to sheer market share, but not all of it. The XP hurdle, for instance, is a form of structural drag on uptake rates — a flaw that browsers that aren’t tightly tied to OSes don’t suffer from. For web developers, I dare say that half-life of popular browsers matters much, much more than the current or trending market share since it’s predictive of our potential for browser improvement in the near future. It’s one thing to get the new shiny, but how long will it take you to install it? If the shiny is old and dingy by the time it’s in place, what good is that? It’s this lens that makes browser market share stats interesting to me; i.e., what percentage of the web’s users will get the new features soonest? ‘Cause those are the folks we can start building super compelling content for.

The average half-life of the majority of browsers in the wild also gates the rate of progress in standards. When the process is working well, bugs in browsers or pre-standards implementations of features aren’t a permanent features of the landscape. Instead, they’re the understandable and inevitable result of a process that prioritizes implementation experience and iteration over raw compliance with an academic spec that may or may not actually get it right on the first go ’round. But that iterative, feedback-rich process only works when browsers iterate quickly and web developers can target the future without thinking so hard about the past, else progress simply turns into something to resent and distrust. That’s good for no one, and a shorter half-life is the key to making progress more than just a spec-tease.

I’m personally hopeful that when IE 9 is finally RTM’d, that it includes some provisions for shortening its life expectancy in the ways that Chrome and Firefox have through aggressive auto-updating. Getting IE 9 out to the world will be a good thing, but only if it happens quickly and if IE 10 can follow it even faster.

There’s obviously a lot more to talk about at the browser panel — Chrome 10 just launched with Crankshaft, for instance — but the fact that nearly every Chrome user will have those improvements this week and that if you’re building a Chrome Web Store app, you’ll get to target those improvements nearly instantly seems like the biggest, most interesting change from where we were just a couple of years ago.

8 Comments

  1. Posted March 9, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I agree 100% on what you say on IE, but I thought I’d point out that just maybe Chrome’s updating policy is a wee bit too aggressive. I’m not asking for the choice to upgrade: I think we know by now that auto-upgrade that you can’t refuse are the way to go; but if it could just *tell me* that it just upgraded, I would feel a little bit less puzzled when it regresses under my feet. (also, the version numbering is just silly). Cheers.

  2. Posted March 9, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    I’d have to agree with Bertrand; I just went through no less than 7 reboots on my main development machine, only to find that even though I use Chrome infrequently (pun intended), it’s up to version 10 without me knowing it’s up to version 10.

    I can understand the aggressiveness because of MS’s history, but at the same time when I don’t understand why my computer is acting funny I get pissed. It means either the transparent process in which the upgrades happen has to be super-uber-rock solid, or I’m basically agreeing to let you, the browser authors, slip something onto my machine which can be construed as a trojan and that pisses me off to no end.

    That’s the kind of thing that makes me not want to use Chrome at all, which would be a shame.

  3. Laura_
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    I just read that Chrome Frame has OVER 3,000,000 ACTIVE INSTALLATIONS! WOW!

    As you know, I’ve always been skeptical of GCF, but with those numbers you sure proved me wrong. It’s probably a great feeling to know that all of your hard work is really making a difference on the web, as opposed to it being some irrelevant endeavour you waste years of your life on.

  4. Drew
    Posted March 10, 2011 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    I think part of the problem is that IE is the de facto choice of old-school corporations and government IT departments, which often use very old and browser-tied security systems (I know several cases in which people are literally required to use IE7 at work: can’t even upgrade to IE8).

    This is one reason why Microsoft goes so slowly, and also why they often build completely off-standard/divergent methods for things like CORS. They have a lot of crazy security edge-cases and special enterprise-level products to worry about supporting.

    I’m not saying that this excuses MS for basically saddling the world with outdated technologies (IE9 will start to suck no matter how good it is for this reason: it will quickly get overtaken and out-featured within a couple of months), but it is worth noting that it’s a lot of these corporate and government policies that saddle their user with old browser tech. They need to get with the program too. And, honestly, Chrome and Firefox could definitely stand to put more time and effort into making their browsers more friendly to huge IT departments, who often have to manage and control updates and security policies fairly tightly.

  5. Matthew
    Posted March 11, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me that its actually out of Microsoft’s hands. The various anti-trust suits in the US and Europe have put MS in a position where they can’t force updates of their browsers for fear of running afoul of regulators who deem it anti-competitive.

    To be clear, I don’t actually think it is, but I think the ‘hammer of (misguided) justice’ would fall on them very quickly if they tried.

  6. Posted March 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Bertrand:

    The version number is silly because we’d prefer you simply not use it. The thing about everyone getting the same version at the same time and at breakneck speed is that you can stop caring about the number. Either it works or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t, you can file a bug and we can fix it. Fast.

    Drew:

    Have you seen http://dev.chromium.org/administrators ? Most things can be centrally administered. Chrome Frame supports all the same controls and MSI deployment options.

    Matthew:

    I’m not sure that argument works. This isn’t about competition per sae, since it’s only about upgrades between versions of the same product. Perhaps there’s a decision point that’s removed by the lack of upgrade prompting, but I think we can easily make the case that auto-upgrades of other OS components would run afoul of the same arguments.

    Regards

  7. Posted March 24, 2011 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    Not to mention the *ten years old* XHTML and SVG is not supported by IE8!

  8. Harold
    Posted March 30, 2011 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    “IE 8 is the end of the upgrade road for XP.”

    Those people using XP can still use Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or Opera and have a modern, real Web browser. ie is irrelevant.

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  1. By IE9. on March 15, 2011 at 8:50 am

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