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The Future of Browser Choice 188

New submitter plawson writes "CNET offers an in-depth discussion of the browser's future, making the case that 'new mobile devices threaten to stifle the competitive vigor of the market for Web browsers on PCs.' Given the vertical integration of many mobile systems, the article predicts that 'the only opportunity you'll get to truly change browsers is when your two-year smartphone contract expires.' The trade-offs are security and performance. Web pages that rely on JavaScript and JIT will be big losers. How important is browser choice on a smartphone or tablet compared with a PC?"
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The Future of Browser Choice

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  • by crazyjj ( 2598719 ) * on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:27PM (#40091421)

    My iPhone lets me choose from Safari and dozens of different skins of Safari

    • by recoiledsnake ( 879048 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:34PM (#40091531)

      My iPhone lets me choose from Safari and dozens of different skins of Safari

      Not just that but I heard Apple is going to open up iOS to Android magazine apps. For the first time, iOS users will be allowed to read about alternative platforms!

      • >>>open up iOS to Android magazine apps.

        What do you need an app for? You can get these magazines through Safari browser! Almost all of them are free on the web. (The only ones I still pay for are Asimovs and F&SF magazines, since their content is locked up.)

    • by cpu6502 ( 1960974 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @03:37PM (#40092459)

      >>>Safari and dozens of different skins of Safari

      There was a time when Apple was a good company. After Commodore Amiga went to pasture I bought a Quadra Mac (68040) and liked it. A nice easy-to-use system (though it lacked preemptive multitasking). But then it all went downhill.

      Though I now have a PowerPC mac I would never buy another one, or any other apple product, because of their love to lockdown things. Its non-apple products from now on. I want freedom.

      • Same here. Between 2002-2007 I bought a couple of PowerBooks, a hefty PowerMac, and a couple of iPods - but I'm finding Apple's policies these days to be rather objectionable, and have been avoiding them. While I do still occasionally recommend Apples to my non-technical friends and family, I'm less enthusiastic about it than I used to.

      • by fatphil ( 181876 )
        We're heading well OT, but why don't you just install linux or a traditional BSD on your powerpc? I've been running linux/ppc64 as my main machine quite happily for several years (since my Alpha blew up). Now I have my own choice of window manager I am 10 times as productive compared to the default single-button-brain OS that the G5 came bundled with.
  • history repeating (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gbjbaanb ( 229885 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:28PM (#40091441)

    Will no-one look to history to see what happens if you are tied into a single browser? Would we all be happy to have the equivalent of IE6 on our smartphones?

    I know Microsoft is not keen on WebGL or Websockets, so imagine a world where they simply did not exist, or failed to gain traction because there was no incentive for the new monopoly to support it.

    The only answer is consumer choice, and we all know 2 years is a lifetime in 'internet time'. Smartphone time is just as fast as that used to be.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Microsoft is fine with Websockets. It's just that the draft was rapidly changing, and had incompatible versions. It's in a shipped product now IIRC.

    • by thoth ( 7907 )

      I think the lesson of the "free-market" here is the regular people don't care what browser they use. The consumer choice made is what platform to buy/use, at the smartphone/tablet level, not at the tech details like which rendering engine is under the hood or whether or not they can swap between 5 different browsers on their device. They don't care about that stuff.

    • by Hatta ( 162192 )

      I know Microsoft is not keen on WebGL or Websockets, so imagine a world where they simply did not exist

      I am, and it's glorious. What's wrong with OpenGL and TCP sockets?

      • simple - you can't be locked into DirectX or WCF-only comms if there's such a standard!

        I am told websockets are now supported by MS, but I think they still say WebGL is a security nightmare waiting to happen, but the DirectX equivalent is quite fine...

  • Jailbreak (Score:4, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:32PM (#40091495)
    Jailbreak and install whatever browser you want. Or better yet, stop shipping restricted computers that are dressed up to look like phones, and start shipping computers that respect user freedom and which happen to come in phone-form-factor with a cell phone module. Why is this so hard?
    • Locking down the system removes a lot of incentive for making the alternative app in the first place.

      Where can you get Firefox for your jailbroken iPad? (I do know there was a preliminary attempt at a port for Cydia, but it has since been abandoned due to lack of interest).

      • by Skuto ( 171945 )

        There was a very preliminary port, but Mozilla abandoned work when Apple made it clear they wouldn't allow Firefox on iOS. For jailbroken phones, here's a repo maintained by a volunteer. []

      • by MikeFM ( 12491 )
        Lack of interest because Safari works just fine, follows open standards, and is updated regularly. So nobody really cares about other browsers. UI options can be offered by the many apps that use the built-in web kit for rendering.
  • I don't see why there are concerns about browsers lagging and lack of competition - it's just that now instead of browsers competing on the desktop, browsers will be competing across multiple devices.

    Yes it means that you personally will have to use the brand of browser that comes with your device, but that does NOT mean you are stuck with the same browser for the life of your contract as long as you chose a device that gets updated through the lifetime of your contract.

    It also does not mean Javascript perf

  • by Qbertino ( 265505 ) <> on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:37PM (#40091563)

    Just 2 weeks ago I asked with you guys what degree I should get for a late-ish career boost (BTW: Once again thanks for all the feedback, it's been a great help!).

    It is because of this entire development that I actually am starting to move away from web stuff. It may seem that the web has won, and with Ajax and regular HTML 5 that may be the case, but it also is true that a few years ago we had a well-ordered world with 3 platforms at most and now with the mobile revolution we pratically are back in the 80ies with a bazillion proprietary platforms none of which are really compatible to one another. ... Even the usage paradigms aren't as clear as they were in 2005 with only Win, Mac and *nix desktops to choose from.

    As for the dangers of stagnation and lock-in - even with HTML5/CSS3 and Ajax - due to extreme verticalisation of markets, I'd say the GP and the related article are spot on. That's why I'm moving away from rich-client and web stuff, at least for the programming that's supposed to earn me stable money in the long term. The 2k years were a great time with lots of fun and opportunities in the web, but those are dimishing as we speak. At least for me it's time to move on.

    My 2 cents.

    • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:49PM (#40091753)

      It may seem that the web has won, and with Ajax and regular HTML 5 that may be the case, but it also is true that a few years ago we had a well-ordered world with 3 platforms at most and now with the mobile revolution we pratically are back in the 80ies with a bazillion proprietary platforms none of which are really compatible to one another.

      You could develop a standard such that it's compatible over all browsers and the server only sends the data and the browser decides how to display it.

      Oh, hang on. We had one of those, it was called HTML. Then web developers started demanding more and more bells and whistles so they could display the page exactly how they wanted it to, and then they had to determine exactly what browser it was being displayed on so they could work out how it wanted to display the page and use different hacks to make it display differently.

    • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @03:00PM (#40091923)

      none of which are really compatible

      Sure they are compatible. Just don't take advantage of "dumb browser trick of the week" and don't use your markup language as a pixel perfect graphics art language.

      All browsers display "normal" HTML ... normally. At least since 1994 or so. Lets see... since I first saw a working browser on a Slowlaris box in the spring of '93 the only useful additions have been... what... SSL, CSS, more recently AJAX, and the removal of the blink tag... other than that?

      You get into epic fail when only chrome version 352.1 supports embedded inline COBOL and you're just dying to use it so you use it and complain about your site only working on chrome 352.1 because all modern browsers need embedded inline COBOL and the end users demand it for their internet experience and what is wrong with the other browser devs and ...

      You also get into epic fail when yoy try to control every little pixel on the screen, as if HTML is the web page analog of the old autocad command line. Most of those kind of people would be better off just hosting freaking huge gif files with imagemaps to click on. Or putting it in flash. Either is an extremely strong indication they are putting all their effort into appearance instead of content and can thus be ignored.

      About 30 years ago the same people were using early desktop publishing to put 50 different fonts in 10 different sizes and 3 colors on each printed page, and any complaints about real world usability were ignored because they were left-brained artiste's, creatives, and lowly technical people couldn't possibly understand their elite level works of art. The old wheel of IT turns around endlessly for junk, not just the good stuff. 30 years from now we're going to be hearing the same stuff about cruddy over/hyper optimized 3-d sites and neural interfaces that "need" useless non-standard stuff.

    • The difference between today and the bad old days of proprietary, locked down, or otherwise incompatible platforms is the number of consumers. It's easily possible to have a company that caters to only one niche market and make money simply because of the numbers. There's no need to get 30% of users to buy your product to make ends meet; less than 1% will pay the bills unless you've got Google overhead.
    • ... but it also is true that a few years ago we had a well-ordered world with 3 platforms at most and now with the mobile revolution we pratically are back in the 80ies with a bazillion proprietary platforms none of which are really compatible to one another. ...

      The bottom line is that smartphones are taking the computer software industry backwards. About 20 years backwards in fact.

      We have legions of shiny but shallow "apps" instead of useful, usable, and comprehensive applications. We have appallingly restrictive vendor control of OSes instead of free private development AND distribution. We have users stuck with small screens, no peripherals, and slow and expensive connections instead of quad core power machines with broadband connections and 20'' widescreens.

      It's 1993 again. Shovelware crap is ubiquitous, there are no set standards, no-one knows how to use their devices, and worse the devices aren't yet actually useful for anything more serious than playing low resolution games and "surfing the web" for recreational purposes.

      People need to wake up and realise that smartphones are little more than expensive toys with a phone tacked on. People need--at the very least--a laptop to get actual work(and play) done. And developers make money supplying the tools to get it done.

      • by jez9999 ( 618189 )

        We have appallingly restrictive vendor control of OSes instead of free private development AND distribution

        Install CyanogenMod on your Android device and enable markets other than Google's. I did. Root access available, too.

    • "Asked" is transitive and should not precede a prepositional phrase. "Asked you guys" and "talked with you guys" are both correct because "talk" is intransitive. Eighties, 80s and 80's are acceptable but not 80ies. I'm not sure what you meant by 2k. I'd read that as 2,000, which can't be what you meant.

      I must say your use of idioms and tech argot is surprisingly good for a non-native speaker, but I know y'all like to be perfect.

  • All mobile browsers, save for WP7, are WebKit.

    Posted from my N9, using webkit.

  • by Sir_Kurt ( 92864 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:46PM (#40091671)

    Sure are a lot of options out there if you don't want to be tied to a contract. I got a new LG Alley phone for about $100 bucks on ebay, and signed up with page plus celluar. Cheap pay as you service, uses all the Verizon toweras, and I can do anything and load any browser I want.

    Be flexible, but stand up to the man.


    • by jez9999 ( 618189 )

      I don't quite see what having a contract or not changes (maybe it's a non-GSM thing?) I have a contract with Three, a UK 3G operator which uses GSM, and I put CyanogenMod on my Android device and I can still use the phone just fine with my contract. Maybe it's still locked into the operator, but it isn't locked into the firmware that was included with the device.

  • the article predicts that 'the only opportunity you'll get to truly change browsers is when your two-year smartphone contract expires.'

    That's the good news. There will still be change, and there will still be competition, but the pace will be slower / the stakes will be higher. Much better for everyone except paid browser devs.

    (What I do / what I need my browser to do) hasn't changed much in years, yet there's an endless spewing stream of "just like before, except now does something you don't want and/or don't care about". Combined with a handy bit of gratuitous UI screwing up, and occasionally adding (or removing) features that addons

  • dumb question, no? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by markhahn ( 122033 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @02:56PM (#40091855)

    or at least one that's been asked a million times before.

    the question is whether you want to use an appliance or a general-purpose device. an appliance is relatively fixed-format, and congruent with the concept of a walled garden, as well as revenue plans that make your vendors mbaciles happy. an appliance normally does not have user-serviceable parts, so the vendor is in control of the UX. appliances are fundamentally fixed-function devices, even if the vendor is able to update and even extend it, since they define what the fixed functions are.

    being general-purpose is the opposite: it means that the owner really does own (control) the device, and can change its function, install software without regard to what the device vendor provides, approves or even knows about. PCs are fully general-purpose, since everything, from the roms to the OS to add-in cards can be replaced by the device owner.

    so the question is really: to what extent is the vendor trying to draw a line across which the device owner cannot cross? no device is truely fixed-function, and even control-freak vendors like Apple provide _some_ affordances through which the device may be extended (hardware connectors, software app-stores). this has always been controversial, since any vendor restriction is at odds with our natural understanding of what "ownership" means (and even companies like Apple tend to show some variance in how locked-down and fixed-function their devices are - I can install Linux on an Apple laptop/desktop without much trouble, but they put a lot of effort into making it hard to root any of the smaller devices.)

    I think it's time we get back to basics: when I buy a device, I should completely control it. any anti-rooting mechanisms should be illegal - the same way it would be illegal for a car vendor to specifically detect and sabotage my car if I put on third-party wheels. sure, make me click through a license-revoking agreement. but if you sell me something, and then take control of it out of my hands, you've committed fraud.

    we should not allow this issue to become an opportunity for vendors to segment their market by selling a version for tinkerers and another for grandma. mostly, vendors have this impulse because their mbaciles want to lock in customers. instead of just selling devices, the popularity of which is subject to whim, the mbacilic approach is to sell service contracts as well, preferably multi-year, to ensure that customers can't get away without paying, even if the vendor's quality degrades. fixed-function devices are inherently like long-term contracts, since customers want upgrades and new apps, and since they're locked in, you can shove profitable advertising down their digital throats, or at least mine their usage/search behaviors.

    • Please mod the parent up! The true issue at heart is device ownership. If you purchase the device, you should be able to do modify it as you see fit! After all, as the thread parent notes, you are welcome to customize a car. In fact, why should browsers even be closed source? Don't they have to be standards compliant in order to function on the internet? A car is open source - you can easily get the repair manuals for it. In this case, a web browser is the "car" on the information "highway." What po
  • by Sebastopol ( 189276 ) on Wednesday May 23, 2012 @03:03PM (#40091959) Homepage

    It wouldn't matter that much to me because unless the content served up on my iPhone is designed for a mobile platform, it is almost impossible tor read, so I prefer the APP to the browser. as long as it is free, that is.

    occasionally i do need to go to a website, and it is kind of a hellish experience because the sites I need to go to (local store's hours, phone #) are written for a desktop browser.

    so unless the browser can magically convert a poorly designed website into something readable in a mobile format, it won't make a difference. (i'm also assuming mom&pop shops on the interwebz won't shell out cash for two platform designs, since they are still using flashing fonts and high-contrast tiled gif backgrounds.. ugh)

    • by Inda ( 580031 )
      All the time!

      Sites like the BBC are perfectly readable in landscape. The majority of vBulletin forums detect my mobile, and display the threads in an easy-to-read format. Ladbrokes, although they cut some of the content the site is very usable, even more usable than their identical App. Google obviously works fine with all their pages.

      For sites that insist on showing me a mobile format, I can use Dolphin on Android and pretend to be a desktop.

      For crap sites, pinch and expand to zoom works fine. Double click
  • (From the article and summary) Web pages that rely on JavaScript and JIT will be big losers.

    The author claims this, but his "proof" is based on the upcoming Windows 8. Since we're talking about mobile browsers here... what Safari and Chrome do are relevant - what Windows Mobile is going to do is basically irrelevant until Microsoft figures out how to steal marketshare back from the two runaway leaders. Mobile Safari and Chrome handle javascript very well - so this conclusion is based on basically nothing.

  • From the summary:

    Web pages that rely on JavaScript and JIT will be big losers.

    Two things wrong with this statement:

    1. A browser lacking JIT will still process JavaScript, just more slowly.

    2. While a web page might lose a few impatient users, and thus become a secondary loser, the primary loser is the one who is the subject of the summary: the smartphone user who is locked in to a particular browser.

    Taking these together, the statement "Users who rely on JIT will be losers" would be more accurate.

    • by Skuto ( 171945 )

      1. A browser lacking JIT will still process JavaScript, just more slowly.

      Umm, yeah. JavaScript JIT's are fast. Like, several orders of magnitude faster than interpreters. Using any popular webpage without them is going to be a total pain in the ass. Nobody's going to want to publish a browser without a JIT because it'll just suck so bad noone will want to use it.

  • This article has a Java Icon. Because "Java, JavaScript, whatever, it's all the same"? Perhaps "mobile" isn't the big threat here.
  • Android phones and tablets come with a stock browser but you certainly aren't limited to that alone. There are plenty of others available through Google Play including Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Dolphin and many more.
  • Okay -- I RTFM'd, and it seems like the author can't really see the forest for the trees.

    Sure, UI is important, but if you're worried about us developing a browser monoculture, you need to look at the rendering engine, and not the UI and trademark that is slapped onto the result.

    And as things currently stand, a monoculture is already forming around Webkit. On the PC side, KHTML, Konqueror, Safari, and Chrome all use Webkit (as well as numerous more minor browsers). On the mobile side, iOS, Chromebooks, Android, Symbian S60 browser, Blackberry browser (6.0+), HP's webOS, and Amazon's Silk all run on Webkit.

    Looking at WikiMedia's stats for April 2012 (link []), it appears from my rough calculations that nearly 36% of HTML page hits were from Webkit based browsers -- more than for any other browser engine. When looking at just mobile browsers, Webkit accounts for more than 80% of page hits from mobile devices.

    Personally, I don't see this as a bad thing. While it was bad when Microsoft's Triton engine held near total dominance in browser engine use on the Internet (bad because it was tied to a single platform and vendor, and didn't conform to W3C standards well (and in some cases, not at all)), having an Open Source Webkit, which is collaborated on by a wide variety of browser vendors and which does an excellent (and I'd say the best) job of conforming to web standards hold dominance is a good thing. It means we have a single standard that web developers can focus their efforts against (W3C standards that is), while allowing anyone to improve upon it and implement it as they see fit, on a plethora of devices.

    Looking at the graph in the article, if you instead break it down by rendering engine, you'll see that at least 80% of their mobile visitors in March were running Webkit based browsers.

    So if he's worried about "one browser dominating them all", he's looking at the wrong equation. The concern now isn't that one browser will become dominant; however it appears that one rendering engine will become dominant. IMO it's a good thing in the case of Webkit, due to its standards compliance and open source nature. Sure, you may not have a lot of choice of browsers on your mobile device, but competition between device manufacturers and the fact that virtually all of them ship with browsers based on the same browser engine will ensure a base level of rendering support, good standards compliance, and in the case of features all of them want/need that such changes can be made (where logical) to Webkit itself, and then trickle down to all of the mobile browsers. Looks like a whole lot of win to me.

    Which isn't to say that I think lack of choice is a good thing in and of itself -- merely that when your choice is between three different browsers running on the same rendering engine (and many of them the same Javascript engine), will most people even care?


    • by Skuto ( 171945 )

      The problem of WebKit is that it has BSD parts that may be susceptible to patents, and the core development is entirely in control of two huge for-profit corporations. Firefox/Gecko has the same problem (too many core devs from one company), and obviously so does Opera (not even open source).

      But at least you have competition between those 3 teams now. If WebKit achieves total dominance, Google and Apple control the web, open source or not.

      • Well at least Mozilla is proposing standards to advance web apps through its b2g project and coffeescript-inspired extensions to ecmascript do trickle into javascript.

        Apple, nokia(wp7 division not Qt) and Google might not care (native app stores generate the $$$).

        But hopefully smaller players like HP (open webOS), KDE (plasma active), Intel (tizen) and RIM (BB10) will add the necessary support to webkit.

      • But at least you have competition between those 3 teams now. If WebKit achieves total dominance, Google and Apple control the web, open source or not.

        No, as the code is OSS, anyone can create a fork if they feel the direction Apple and Google are taking isn't the one they want to take.

        And Apple and Google may be the two biggest kids in the WebKit sandbox, but don't discount RIM, Nokia(/Accenture), and Sansung, (and I imagine others -- this was just a quick list I was able to gather from looking at their svn commit logs for the past couple of weeks) who are also big companies that use and contribute to WebKit.

        And being LGPL/BSD licensed, there isn't a who

  • So wait... the PC is dead and we'll all be browsing the internet on our 4" smartphone screens? That'll make reading anything longer than a sentence rather difficult... and wikipedia... wait, they're full of shit aren't they?
  • And it actually appears to have some innovation behind it, display results and the provoking queries on the same screen in a way that makes it easier to navigate between them: [] []

  • Well, I guess PC web browsers wil lack the kind of focus that
    major market share provides....another page of history turns.

    Film at eleven!

"Let every man teach his son, teach his daughter, that labor is honorable." -- Robert G. Ingersoll