Mozilla CTO Sees an Upside to the Browser Wars

In the new browser wars, speed and technology are the key weapons employed by browser vendors. Sitting in the CTO chair of open source browser vendor Mozilla is Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript and a former Netscape employee. A veteran of the first browser war which decimated Netscape and left Microsoft in command of the field, Eich is not about to yield the field this time around to anyone.

With Apple, Google, Opera and Microsoft now all competing for mind and market share in the new browser war, the challenges and the stakes are perhaps greater than ever. Yet in this new contest, it’s not the vendors themselves that will ultimately prevail, but rather it is likely that it is the web itself which will emerge victorious.

“The future of the Web is bright,” Eich told “We talk about things like Silverlight and Adobe AIR being a threat to the open Web but they won’t succeed in displacing the reach of the Web. Competition is going strong in the Web browser market and I think that will bring them all up towards parity and keep them evolving in ways developers want.”

Though Firefox and Internet Explorer (IE) are rivals for browser share, Eich
credits Microsoft with improving IE in recent years.

“My interpretation of what Microsoft is doing with IE in the last few years is they are trying to support standards more and they took some risks doing that with CSS improvements that frankly could break things for some of their enterprise customers,” Eich said.

The question for Eich however is how far Microsoft will actually go in supporting truly open standards. That said he noted that between the pressures of competition and developers, Microsoft may have little choice but to support standards.

The Impact of HTML 5

One such new standard that is emerging is HTML 5 which would be the first major revision of HTML in nearly a decade. The first public working draft of HTML 5 was released earlier this year and the final draft is expect by 2010. Efforts on revising HTML have been underway since at least 2004.

“HTML 5 is a large thing and it’s kind of a standards party,” Eich commented. In some ways there is a lot in it that is good, original and a logical extension to what is already in HTML today. Some of it is a response to the needs of developers building Web apps in the modern world who really can’t make do with the scotch tape and wire approach that has been used so far.”

Though the specification is not yet finalized, several browser vendors, including Mozilla, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), have already included some components in their browsers.

“We’re really concerned about getting the best parts implemented first, making sure they are interoperable and then going from there,” Eich said. “I think that’s happening.”

In particular Eich noted that WebKit, used by Apple Safari and Google Chrome, has done a good job of implementing some early HTML 5 features. Eich also credits Google for Chrome’s multi-process isolation model.

Eich noted that for years there have been various bugs in Mozilla where people have blamed plug-ins and wanted to put them out of process. That said Mozilla has been at work updating its plugin model which had been based on an old Netscape API.

The Google Chrome approach for process isolation however won’t necessarily work for Mozilla, in part because, according to Eich, it uses more memory.

“If we went back and started using more memory that would be a problem for us, but with Chrome they have a clean slate approach and they can say they use more memory, but it goes away as you exit processes,” Eich said.

Next Page: Giving Chrome credit

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Overall though, while some have argued that Google Chrome might be a competitive threat to Mozilla, Eich is positive on the new entrant.

“It’s great that it’s open source and it’s great to have another competitive browser out there, it just ups the ante in the space, it all helps to roll the Web forward,” Eich commented.

Here comes Firefox 4

On the topic of rolling the Web forward, Mozilla has been at work on its Mozilla 2 platform (currently Firefox is based on the Mozilla 1.9.x platform). Mozilla 2 will be a break from the current development line of Firefox, which is why Eich views the Mozilla 2 effort currently as more of a research and development initiative.

“Almost anything on the Web has to released early and often, you can’t have these big bang integrations the Windows Vistas, those tend to be train wrecks and we don’t have any such plans for Mozilla 2,” Eich said. “So it’s a grab bag that I spawned two years ago.”

Among the items included in the Mozilla 2 efforts are JavaScript virtual machine enhancements, static analysis for re-writing Mozilla code, doing various safety checks and cleaning up APIs. Mozilla is not waiting around for Mozilla 2 to be fully baked they’re instead now releasing Firefox at a faster rate.

“We’re working on Firefox 3.1 now and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a Firefox 3.2, other browsers seems to be releasing often Safari certainly is,” Eich said. “Whatever the numbers are the pace of browser releases has definitely picked up and that means that there will probably be a Mozilla 2 and Firefox 4, but we’ll keep rolling with what we can as soon as we can.”

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