Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.

Browser Wars (plural)

In a half hour, I'm going to be on the Web 2.0 Expo Browser Wars panel with a cast of incredible folks. A couple of weeks back, I had the privilege of doing something similar on a browser panel expertly moderated by Arun Ranganathan.

As a part of that panel, Brendan, Lars, Arun, John, and I all agreed to post a list of links to demos and such that showed off what our latest browsers are doing. Belatedly, here goes:

The browser wars panel is designed to be a discussion, so we didn't use any kind of presentation media. So here's a list of demos and resources so that you can learn more about stuff we talk about. Pictures speak volumes about what gets us excited about the web, anyway.

HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript Demos

WebGL Demos

To get maximum mileage out of these, you'll want a fast PC with the latest Chrome or Firefox.


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.

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