Is Browser technology no longer the ‘game changer’?

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Mumbai: Microsoft‘s decision to move from Edge browser to join an Open source software (OSS) based Chromium browser project last month has raised many questions on the Redmond headquartered company.

“We intend to adopt the Chromium open source project in the development of Microsoft Edge on the desktop to create better web compatibility for our customers and less fragmentation of the web for all web developers,” Joe Belfiore, Corporate VP – Windows, Microsoft said in blog post last month.

“As part of this, we intend to become a significant contributor to the Chromium project, in a way that can make not just Microsoft Edge — but other browsers as well — better on both PCs and other devices,” Belfiore wrote in his blog post.

Microsft’s move to Chromium
What made Microsoft to take this decision is still a mystery. Perhaps, there has been some developments and instances that could explain the company’s unprecedented move – such as fragmented browser market with third party browsers, its old tactics of bundling the browser with Windows operating software (OS) aren’t working anymore or is something else to it.

Well, the decision has certainly perplexed a large section of software developer community, analysts and the internet users globally. It’s not because Microsoft is adopting and participating in an Open source software based Chromium project, but why would it move away from an own proprietary technology built browser — that’s secure, stable and not too old?

Browser technology – no more ‘Game Changer’
“The development of browser technology is no longer the ‘game changer’ portal to the world,” says Mark Skilton, Professor of Practice Information Systems & Management – Warwick Business School, UK.

“It’s more the micro-services, artificial intelligence (AI) and immersive reality, connecting to sensors in the Internet of Things (IoT) or digital payments and blockchain that are important today,” points out Professor Skilton.

Amid the constantly changing technology and new technologies are being built globally, however there are also more regulations and country or region specific legislation today than in the past decades or so.

New regulations
For instance, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which was implemented in May 25, 2018 is a European Union (EU) regulation that provides data protection and privacy for all the individuals within the EU and the European Economic Area. Such regulations have strong bearing on technology companies and businesses dealing with the region and its people.

Since GDPR became effective last year, it had enforced businesses and tech companies to make effective changes in the ways they collect and manage data of EU citizens. And to ensure that the tech companies and business follow and adhere to the guidelines, there’s a provision of strict actions with massive fines in case of any violation.

The browser technology is prone to GDPR and other data protection rules. Most of these browsers are known to collect user data, which the tech companies and businesses use for various purposes. In a way, such tools act as access points, which according to Professor Skilton are more of liability today than an asset providing an advantage.

“The EU and US Congress are likely to start regulating portals like Google search and Facebook much harder in 2019 and beyond so the advantage of dominating the access point and controlling this is becoming more of a liability,” says Professor Skilton.

Microsoft’s long browser history : Internet Explorer to Edge
Probably that could be one of the invisible links to Microsoft’s decision to end Edge browser, which initially was introduced on 29 July, 2015 for internal use and some months later, was bundled with company’s new Windows 10 OS and other applications.

With this, Microsoft also phased out its long running series of Internet Explorer (IE) browser. It had rolled the last IE version 11 in 2013, two years before the company announced the Edge browser plan.

In a bid to expand the market reach, Microsoft even made Edge available on the iOS and Android platforms in late 2017. But since the launch three years ago, Edge hasn’t been able to make any substantial impact compared its predecessor Internet Explorer had against the likes of Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, Opera and others.

Microsoft Internet Explorer vs Netscape Navigator
Interestingly, Microsoft IE browser series has been around for 23 years now. The first IE browser was launched on 16 August, 1995 and was bundled with the Windows 95 Plus package to compete against dominating Netscape Navigator browser – a flagship product of Netscape Communications.

Netscape Navigator, a graphically rich browser with advanced features was considered the most powerful and popular web tool during the 90s. Netscape’s popularity even led AOL to acquire Netscape Communications, erstwhile Mosaic Communications Corp., for $10 billion in 1999.

But Microsoft successfully broke Netscape Navigator’s dominance in the market through its software bundling tactics. IE was a bundled application with the new Window 95 OS and this monopolist move ensured that Windows 95 users will no longer require to install any separate or third party browser application like Netscape.

That’s how Microsoft IE and Windows OS started to rule the personal computers (PCs) globally and subsequently it also ended the Netscape’s dominance in the market as it became defunct by 2000 end.

This eventually made IE the most powerful and dominate browser with over 80 percent market share in the late 90s till mid 2000s, according to industry data. But then, IE’s popularity and usage gradually saw a decline against the emergence of new browsers – Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox and others in the post 2010 era.

The rise of new browsers and market fragmentation
In addition, there’s been a browser fragmentation with the rise of mobile phones, where most handset manufacturers like Apple are either using their own or third party mobile browsers like Opera and UC browser. These are inbuilt mobile browsers are preconfigured with a particular search engine. And this trend has also hit Microsoft’s browsers to an extent, although it has mobile browsers and also built its own Bing search engine.

Interestingly, Netscape has a big hand in the making of Mozilla Firefox browser because it had released the browser code and even established the Mozilla organisation for further technology development. This was just before AOL had acquired Netscape.

Browser capabilities and not market share
In the present era, Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox are among the most popular web browsers, although Microsoft Edge and Internet Explorer still have a declining market share. But, Professor Skilton has a different take on the browser market as he looks closely at other capabilities of the browser.

“It never really felt, rather it never went anywhere,” he says. In his view, it is not just the browser, but other services it brings or offers would determine the position of that browser referring to Google Chrome.

“Google Chrome is the big one and as mentioned this may become an issue with GDPR around the issues of transparency. But the benefit of one browser is not the browser itself, but the services behind it in a search engine scale or access to other services,” explains Professor Skilton.

Unlike IBM, Oracle or HP of the old school IT companies, Microsoft according to Professor Skilton, recognised this better and has built a successful cloud business. “And is now moving into AI. Bundling will be a target for regulators, so this is more an old style behaviour that will start to die out,” he points out.

He substantiates his point with the example of Google Android, which has been fined by EU for antitrust abuse. “Google Android has been slapped several times for doing this so it’s a new generation services that matter more now.”

Factors determining the future of software development
Having said, there’s a clear shift toward Open source software against proprietary and it has become quiet popular among the software developer community.

So in a larger context, Professor Skilton doesn’t see much of the impact of Microsoft’s scarping its own browser and how developers would look at it.“Not really, the regulation and access to market, content and open architecture design will drive future developer work,” he emphasizes.

“But, if Google starts to monopolise this, you can imagine the legal uproar,” Professor Skilton concludes with a warning.

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