Andreas Gal: Browsers Are Commoditized, But Differentiation Still Possible

Carl Weinschenk

No sector has changed as much as browsers during the past 15 years. Internet Explorer was wildly dominant during the early years of the 2000s, reaching well above 90 percent, but has fallen on hard times and is fading.

Andreas Gal has seen the drama unfold. He co-founded the Boot to Gecko project in 2011, which evolved to the Firefox OS. Two years later, Gal was appointed the Vice President of Mobile Engineering for Mozilla and became the Chief Technology Officer in 2014. Gal has co-founded Silk Labs, a company in the artificial intelligence sector. He is the CEO.

IT Business Edge spoke to Gal about the fate of Internet Explorer and the current state of the browser sector.


IT Business Edge: Why is Microsoft fading so precipitously?

Gal: There are probably several reasons but I imagine a big reason is massive marketing by Google recommending users to use Chrome. This makes a lot of sense for Google. They can leverage their services monopoly (Google Search and YouTube and Google Mail) to get users to install Chrome. Chrome defaults to Google Search instead of IE/Edge, which default to Bing. I suspect Firefox is dropping for the same reason. Both Edge and Firefox are good browsers, but it’s a commodity market and marketing determines the winner. Google has access to billions of dollars’ worth of free marketing on some of the most popular web properties.

 

IT Business Edge: How different are browsers “under the hood?” Are they different shades of gray, or significantly different mousetraps?

Gal: The major browsers are very similar architecturally and the technical differences are rather mild at this point. Firefox tends to be a bit better about memory use. Chrome is usually best when it comes to security and stability (especially Flash, which Google forked and licensed from Adobe). Edge is really good on power management.

But all these differences are in the 5 percent range. For the average user on an average day, it makes basically no difference. I use Firefox and Chrome interchangeably and often I don’t even notice which browser I am using. It’s like Coke and Pepsi. You may have a preference, but they are really all the same. When a restaurant doesn’t have your favorite, you’ll happily go with the other.

Smaller browsers, in contrast, try to genuinely differentiate. My favorite is Brave. Brave blocks all ads aggressively and it makes for a much faster Web experience. Try it, it’s hard to believe how bloated an average Web page is. Brave is often several times faster than one of the larger browsers. I use it most days. Technically, Brave is just Chromium, more or less, but they made a product choice the big guys have a hard time matching since everyone else is funded by advertising dollars.

IT Business Edge: Which in your opinion is the most advanced and sophisticated browser?

Gal: Browsers are highly commoditized at this point and they are mostly the same from a technical perspective. There are some small technical differences but it’s often hard for users to see them. Mozilla recently announced that Firefox now uses less memory. I can confirm that on my machine (about 50 percent less). In practice, whether Firefox uses 500MB or 1GB doesn’t really make any difference on my 16GB machine. I only know because marketing told me. On underpowered notebooks, it may make a difference, but even there it’s probably minor on any hardware that isn’t several years old.

IT Business Edge: Has HTML5 been fully integrated into the browser mix?

Gal: Yes, most browsers are pretty good at spec compliance. Edge often leads in that game, but that doesn’t help them much. Whoever has the largest market share determines what feature sets websites actually use and that clearly is Chrome. In contrast to IE, Google is not slacking off just because Chrome has a dominant market share. Google continues to aggressively push new web standards and implement new HTML5 features.

This is good and bad. Often, you can see Google pursue Google-centric and Google-only APIs because they know they can, and nobody has sufficient market share to always stop them. A few times it worked, though. Mozilla successfully prevented a Chrome-proprietary NaCl Web assembly standard and instead established the JavaScript-derived WebAssembly, which is now backed by multiple vendors. There is still much good in browser diversity, but it’s becoming harder to justify the massive (1000+ engineers) investment in having your own web engine.

IT Business Edge: In mobile, are web-based access and mobile apps finding their own niches, or are they competing directly?

Gal: The web lost on mobile. Or at least HTML and CSS did. HTML and CSS, as of today, are still not a good fit for high quality, high refresh rate and highly interactive touch-mobile applications and native UIs and, with that, native apps won.

There is still a lot of HTML and CSS in mobile apps, but it’s usually the second layer of interaction. The Yelp app is native, and the main UI is native, but I think the reviews are rendered with HTML. That’s a good example.

However, not all hope is lost! JavaScript and much of the rest of the web stack are still healthy. React Native is causing a resurgence of JavaScript and web-technologies on mobile, but without HTML and CSS. A partial victory!

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

 


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