Where in the web is the browser going?

What is happening to the browser? Once noisily touted as the tool to break the Windows hegemony, the browser ended up as another generic app.

What is happening to the browser? Once noisily touted as the tool to break the Windows hegemony, the browser ended up as another generic app.

Rather than a desktop replacement, it became a desktop tool, with Microsoft controlling 95% of the market.

That was then. Six months on, we’ve seen the rise of Safari, the maturity of Mozilla and its derivatives, Microsoft’s voluntary withdrawal from the Macintosh browser market and uncertainty from Redmond about its plans for IE. What does this add up to for developers? Has the browser reached its zenith, or is a new battle about to break out that will breathe some fresh life into the web?

Microsoft almost appears to be retreating from the browser space. In contrast, the competition has renewed vigour: the Mozilla developers have shipped four point-releases of their browser and have passed IE in features and rendering performance, Apple has built and shipped the zippy Safari, and a number of Mozilla and Konqueror variants have finally brought a modern browsing experience to Unix and its variants.

Those expecting Microsoft to trump the competition with a new IE7 supporting the latest standards have been disappointed. In May the IE programme manager, Brian Countryman, said that IE6 would be the last standalone version; further improvements would require “enhancements to the underlying OS”. Website designers reacted with shock; Microsoft’s next OS revision, Longhorn, isn’t due until 2005. Microsoft subsequently said it hadn’t decided whether to issue further standalone releases.

So what should developers expect?

Point one: let’s take Countryman at face value — adding newer standards support to IE might well require enhancements to the operating system. IE6 is built upon code written for a much less sophisticated web. It’s too early to tell just what new features Longhorn will bring, but there will certainly be changes to the user interface and a new graphics engine. Both might make it easier to produce the next-generation IE.

Point two: the monolithic client may have had its day. Microsoft has been busy evangelising web services and XML, and there’s no reason why these should be delivered to the desktop through a browser interface. RSS newsreaders have exploded in popularity, and anybody who has used web service clients like Apple’s Sherlock 3 will know how much more pleasant a good desktop app can be than a web interface. There are plenty of hints about Microsoft activity in the weblogging and RSS arena. It will be interesting to see where the browser sits in Microsoft’s plans.

Point three: the most important project at Redmond is Longhorn, and everything else sits in its shadow. Microsoft has made no secret that it wants Longhorn to be the most internet-savvy OS ever, and that means tying web services so tightly to the OS as to become close to indistinguishable from local services. Microsoft’s forthcoming Google competitor will locate information and services, and the .Net frameworks will deliver them to the desktop.

What does this mean for developers? Web services will continue to grow, and we’ll see more web service clients emerge over the next few years, including clients tailored to a specific vendor’s web service.

But it seems certain that most web developers will be stuck targeting IE6 for some years to come yet.

Longhorn may well introduce some killer web features, but even Microsoft accepts adoption of the new OS will be gradual.

Cooney is a Computerworld reporter.

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