RealTime IT News

Rise of the Underdog Browser

Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser dominance may be slowly eroding, but businesses are still creating Web sites and applications exclusively for IE users.

According to the latest numbers from Web analytics firm WebSideStory, IE usage has slipped almost 2 percent over the last quarter, as surfers migrate to Mozilla Firefox and Opera. But the early adopter crowd has learned that IE cannot be dumped entirely because of the oft-encountered "browser not supported" error message.

Firefox Firefox is hunting for its own share of the market.

So, if the trend holds and the alternative browsers are gaining market share, why aren't more companies supporting non-IE browsers?

"It eventually comes down to dollars and cents," says Konstantine Guericke, a co-founder of business networking player LinkedIn. "It's an investment to develop for multiple browsers, and it's even more significant when you have to back-port your application for newer browsers."

Because LinkedIn targets a tech-savvy business audience, Guericke said it was important to reach users on all available browsers, making the investment a "no-brainer."

But even as he preached the multiple browser gospel, Guericke conceded that the high cost of supporting non-traditional e-mail clients meant that LinkedIn's integration remained incomplete.

"It gets really, really expensive on the e-mail side. We have integration with [Microsoft's] Outlook because that's the dominant platform. But, to support clients like Eudora or even Thunderbird becomes a cost issue. You have to cater for integrating lots of different APIs that aren't clean and well-documented, and it becomes very expensive in a hurry."

Developer Apathy

Anil Dash, vice president at Weblog software firm Six Apart, believes the lack of non-IE support can be traced back to the tools used by developers.

"If developers are using Microsoft's development tools, you'll find they'll be building products that only work with IE. They take the easy way out and assume that IE's dominance is good enough," Dash told internetnews.com.

"I don't think it comes from upper management deciding not to support Firefox or Opera. It comes mostly from the technologists saying 'this is what the tools do and this is good enough,'" Dash added.

"I think management has to start paying attention to what the technologists are doing. You have to change how the developers work and how the testing process works. It's much easier to write something that works on everything instead of just coding for IE. There are some things that have to be browser-specific, but it makes no sense to ignore an audience that is gradually moving to newer browsers," said Dash, who runs Six Apart's Professional Network.

Canadian IT consultant Sean Mitchell agrees.

"For many applications, there's a standards-compliant way and there's an IE-only way," he said. "Until recently, many developer tools use the IE-only way, and the tech guys in a company don't really care. For them, it's the easy way out. But, for management, it's probably not the best thing."

Mitchell advises his clients to pay attention to the browser trends and take the Firefox/Opera growth seriously.

"If you are building something from scratch, it's pretty straightforward to make something compatible with both browsers. But, if you ignore one that becomes significant later, it becomes very expensive to go back and fix the mistake," he said.

Another problem for companies on the IE-only train, Mitchell warns, is that casual surfers are turned off when an application doesn't work or when a page isn't rendered properly.

"Companies increasingly run the risk that a potential client's first impression is a bad one. Often, users will not appreciate the fact that a page renders badly due to the browser, and simply move on. Anyone publishing on the Web today should be sure they know how their site looks in all versions of the most common browsers."

It's in the Strategy

Dash believes that there's a change in thinking happening, especially in some market segments.

"People are beginning to realize that there's a significant audience out there that's not tied to IE. That audience can't be alienated. If you are targeting the Web design audience, half your users will be on Macs, so that's a platform that can't be ignored. Businesses have to start thinking beyond the Web and start developing a culture of realizing that there are people browsing on phones and there are people who are simply not using IE."

Opera Software CEO Jon von Tetzchner said Microsoft's security problems have triggered a significant enough migration, particularly in Europe, where he claims the combined Opera/Firefox market share has reached double digits.

Opera Opera is ready to fight for a spot on the browser stage.

"Internet Explorer has become boring, and users are making that clear by downloading Firefox and Opera. It's now time for a change in thinking among the developers," von Tetzchner told internetnews.com. "The IE market share used to be 98 percent, and now it's down to 88 percent in some places. Now you have to start thinking about the value you are getting when developing for non-IE users."

Six Apart's Dash agrees.

"It becomes a question of strategic thinking. If you think you need to port from IE to other browsers just to reach 5 percent of users, it will be seen as expensive. But, if you look at it like you're adding support to reach an audience that is there and growing, you'll see the value."

It's a strategy adopted and perfected by LinkedIn, said co-founder Konstantine.

"You have to make the investment even if you are investing in only a small market," he said. "For us, Apple users might be a tiny part of the market, but there a lot of key influencers who still use the Mac. We need to make sure our service works for them, because that's the quality audience that makes our service valuable. We look at that as a no-brainer investment."

Mitchell's advice to companies: "It makes good business sense to code valid, standards-compliant Web pages. We all know IE is not in any immediate danger of losing its dominance, but in the long term, who knows? Look at how quickly Netscape lost its dominance to IE. Companies can't make these costly mistakes."