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.”

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