state of the browsers and a modest proposal

I’m sure I’m not saying anything anyone else hasn’t already said, but I wanted to gather it here for my own benefit after the last month or so of browser news….

Internet Explorer
Frozen. The Windows version will not be updated beyond the current 6.0; allegedly the next major version will be part of the operating system. There will not be another Mac version (currently at 5.0), except as part of an MSN subscription. (Monopoly? What monopoly? Lawsuit? What lawsuit?)

Dead; AOL closed shop this week. Version 4, now six years old, is still being given security updates; apparently the same will be true of the most recent (7.1) version as well, but there will not be another version. (This after AOL got piles of cash as a “settlement” in one of the anti-trust lawsuits, and MS agreed to “let” them use IE as the default AOL browser for free for the next seven years. I like Zeldman’s latest take on that.)

Alive. The open-source behemoth will, apparently, keep rolling. They’ve been booted from AOL, but with a tidy little donation, and will be set up as entirely their own non-profit org with cash from Sun, IBM, etc. (The whole quasi-anti-MS posse.) Current version is 1.4; the general-user version, now called Firebird, is at 0.6.

Alive. No recent changes in direction for this browser from a small company in Norway. Most recent version is 7.0. Last I heard, Opera was making strong inroads into the embedded devices market: cell phones and the like.

Quite alive, thank you very much. Current version (1) is the default browser for OSX.

What does it mean?
My short answer: nothing good in the Windows space, more neutral in the Mac space.

The overwhelming majority of Web users are on IE 5, 5.5, or 6, which were the default browsers for Windows 98 (5 or 5.5), 2000 (6), and XP (6). most people upgrade slowly, whether that’s operating systems or browsers: they don’t know why they should, don’t want to learn something new, don’t want to spend more money. upgrading a browser suffers from the additional hurdle of involving downloading software, which on a dialup connection can be deadly slow.

IE 5.5 & IE 6 have issues. Security issues, for one thing, though that’s really out of my personal expertise. On the Web design front, they have numerous CSS bugs and support problems. Luckily, those tend to be fairly well known, so there are lots of hacks and workarounds. But hacks and workarounds always slow things down, both the design process (a design that I could get to work near perfectly in Moz 1.4 and Opera 7 has an intractible flaw in IE 6) and in the downloading experience (more hacks means more code, even if it’s vastly less than the old browser detection & table-layout stuff).

And there are always deadly combo bugs. (Don’t get me started.)

More generally, it means that one company owns the Web-surfing experience for the overwhelming majority of users. One can imagine a number of consequences of this fact; I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

The only bright spot I can see is Apple’s committment to Safari, which is based on the open source K-meleon (sp?); countering that are the legions of Mac IE 5.0 users.

what to do?
Perhaps what the Mozilla folks should organize next is a CD-burning distribution project; distributed distribution, as it were. If you have a broadband connection, and care about this sort of thing (either fighting the monopoly or fighting for Web standards), burn some disks of the latest Moz/Firebird release and give them to your friends on dial-up.

Also, is there a super-simple user’s guide for Moz/FB?

On the other hand, I’m thinking about paying for a copy of Opera (at home), instead of just having the ad-supported version. Put my money where my mouth is.