The Browser Wars are starting again. The last time this battle was joined was toward the end of the last decade. At that time, market leader Microsoft (MSFT) and its Internet Explorer browser were under assault from Mozilla’s Firefox and Google’s (GOOG) Chrome. The momentum began to shift, and Microsoft let Internet Explorer founder. Chrome took the top spot in May 2012. It now commands 37 percent of the global browser market, according to tracking site StatCounter.
Recently it’s been a bit quieter on the browser front. That’s in part because the industry has become more focused on apps, which let users do many of the same things they use the Web for, while also taking advantage of a mobile device’s touchscreen and other capabilities. For example, a bank’s app might let customers deposit a check by taking a picture of it; its website can’t. “It’s been a very app-centered conversation for the past three years,” says Ryan Gavin, senior director of Internet Explorer at Microsoft. Compared with eye-popping apps such as Star Walk, which can identify constellations using a phone’s camera, Gavin acknowledges that the browser comes up a little short. “No one runs into your office and says, ‘Have you tried browsing the Web on this iPad?’ ”
But browser makers are not just going to roll over in the face of increased competition from apps. “No matter how many apps you have,” says Jay Sullivan, Mozilla’s vice president of products, “there are many things you want to do that you don’t have an app for.”
Browser makers are pinning their hopes on HTML5, a programming language that preserves the ubiquity of the Web while making sites work more like apps. They are also deepening integration with cloud-based services, which allow users to preserve settings and history across multiple devices. Mozilla has added new features to its browser such as its Social API, which lets users monitor activity on their social networks in a sidebar while browsing other sites. Late last year, Microsoft released an upgraded browser, IE 10, which works closely with the new Windows 8 operating system. Users can place an icon for a website on the start screen much as they would a frequently used app.
Browser makers such as Google, Mozilla, and Microsoft are also playing a longer game—one with more significant ramifications than any single new feature. They are looking to fundamentally transform what it means to use a browser.
Google’s strategy is well known. It developed Chrome OS, in which all of a computer’s functions are performed through the browser. Chromebooks—laptops that run on Chrome OS—have been on sale since 2011 but have yet to take off with consumers.
Mozilla is going a step further. Later this year the company plans to release Firefox OS, an operating system based on the Web’s HTML standards. Developers will create apps for the system, but unlike Apple’s (AAPL) App Store, where each app must be approved before it can be sold, Firefox’s OS will be completely open. It will offer developers “the freedom to build what you want without permission from gatekeepers,” says Sullivan. “The reason that app developers go through gatekeepers is because they need the store to make any money,” he adds. “But what if you could embed payments into the app so the developer could get money directly from users?”
Microsoft’s tying the browser even closer to its operating system (which is sort of funny, given that was the crux of the huge antitrust case the Department of Justice brought against the company in the late 1990s). When IE 10 runs on Windows 8, websites are shown full-screen, without any of the usual toolbars and menus (those functions pop up when needed). On mobile devices, the toolbar is reduced to a small strip. “Every pixel is dedicated to the site,” says Microsoft’s Gavin. “It’s just like using an app.”
The goal for all these companies is to create a Web-browsing experience that emphasizes the content as opposed to the delivery device. “The browser is not this thing to have bells and whistles,” says Gavin. “The browser is the theater, the sites are the play. The browser should get out of the way.”
A new koan for the Digital Age: The best browser is no browser.