HE DOESN’T KNOW HOW MUCH I LOVE HIM

One’s esteemed colleague John Allsopp discusses a paper (PDF) by Bresnahan and Yin about the so-called browser wars.

IE did not win the browser wars, despite for a long time dominating market share. No one will ever win the browser wars, because the game is over. Standards won the browser wars.

The problem is that the paper specifically states that it covers what we would understand as the pre-standards era:

In this paper, we study the diffusion of new and improved versions of… browsers from 1996 to 1999. We focus on commercial browsers from Microsoft and Netscape.

The authors also imply that they know exactly what they’re talking about, that their topic is limited by design, and that the meaning of “standards” has changed.

There are also a set of semi-public standard-setting bodies for these protocols, like the W3C, to which we pay little attention, since the important standard-setting activity in the era we study was de facto and commercial.

They do, however, have a wise analysis of browser distribution and “support”:

This type of technical progress would only give users an incentive to adopt after Web sites took advantage of the improvements. Webmasters, in turn, could only get a wide audience for their more advanced Web sites if there was widespread usage of new and improved browsers. As a result, the rate of diffusion of the newest browser version depended on the time it took for Webmasters to become convinced that the newest version would be adopted by a sufficient number of users and subsequently release advanced Web sites.

For “the newest version,” read “Web standards.”

The paper was first written in 2003 (published 2005), well into the standards era but well past the so-called browser wars.

Where we have legitimate cause for objection is in the remarks of author Yin, who seems to know nothing, nothing whatsoever, about how Web sites are actually created.

As for the future of Web browsers, the standard has been set, and it will be very hard to displace IE. Although Firefox is touted as the new challenger, its share of end users is only estimated at 10%, and end users are less of a barrier to further market share than are Webmasters.

Who exactly is trying to “displace IE”? The goal is increased standards support, which we’re even getting in… IE7.

Why won’t an IT manager support [minority browsers]? The biggest headache with these browsers is that the majority of Web sites are optimized on [sic] IE. Try going to some of the major commercial airline sites…. Even Netscape doesn’t work with all of our Harvard Business School applications.

Then those airline sites and Harvard Business School’s are defective. (So are some versions of Netscape. Is she still using Netscape 4 in 2006?) Really, this is a textbook case of blaming browsers for different and unpredictable handling of nonstandard code when it’s the nonstandard code that caused the problem.

Because different browsers require slightly different code to be viewable, it is costly for Webmasters to write for different types of browsers.

It is. That’s why it’s cheaper to write to standards, even if it means the occasional browser hack, a topic Yin could look up.

They will tend to pick the browser that is most used by the majority of end users. Thus, the source of network effects in this market is indirect. While end users don’t know which browser other users are using, the developers of the content that make the browser so useful do care that everyone is using a similar browser.

Question for Yin: As this can be read as an argument to do nothing at all to support users with disabilities, who are always a minority on the Web, what economic case could be advanced to vindicate that argument?

The Web is not a popularity contest. It isn’t a question of minority vs. majority browsers. It might have been during the era she and Bresnahan covered in their paper, but we don’t live in that era anymore. Her expertise would seem to require updating.

Either the innovations would have to be huge improvements over what IE can currently do, or a huge problem would have to arise with current IE use to create an opening for such a late second mover to make headway and lead people to go through the hassle of switching their browser.

That might have been an interesting prediction in 2003, but to make that prediction in 2005 shows that Yin simply is not on top of the issue. Microsoft already decided to support standards. It isn’t a question of some other browser’s providing a sexier feature that tilts the balance away from IE.

Even with the security issues that plague IE, Microsoft has a huge amount of cash. If any browser really became a threat, Microsoft could easily imitate their innovation, or fix the IE problem with a patch. Indeed, IE successfully caught up to Netscape’s quality by throwing a lot of money and manpower into IE browser development.

And then they did nothing for half a decade. The money and “manpower” they’re “throwing” into the browser are concerned more with standards than differentiation.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2006.05.07 16:33. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2006/05/07/browserwars/

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