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© 2004 Brian F. Schreurs
Even we have a disclaimer.

Honesty is a dog's nose sniffing your crotch.
So I tried Mozilla.

I read all the hype about Internet Explorer's weaknesses, but lacking a reasonable alternative, I did nothing. Then, out of the blue, a friend suggested I try Mozilla. "It's a lot faster" he opined. I never really had a speed problem with Internet Explorer as long as I kept the caches clean, so I wasn't sure that I'd be able to tell how much faster Mozilla was, but what the heck. Anything to bring down The Man.

It's a brainless download and install -- nothing to it at all, just chuckled at the sneaky attempt to make Mozilla the default browser before it's even been put through its paces. So far so good.

The feature list for Mozilla is interesting but seems to be geared more toward people who do web work for a living. For the casual user, the only two features that really matter are the pop-up window blocking and the tabbed browsing.

The pop-up window blocking is well done. It seems to block most all pop-ups, but rather than making them simply vanish, Mozilla keeps an inventory of blocked pop-ups. Check the inventory -- see if there's one you need, as there will be sometimes -- reactivate it if you need it. Clever. The only question that remains is whether checking the list all the time is really less annoying than just closing the pop-ups. These days, most legitimate websites spare users the annoyance of pop-up ads, so those that remain are far more likely to do something useful. Time will tell I suppose.

The tabbed browsing likewise seems like a good idea provided you're the sort who regularly has more than, say, three browser windows up at a time. Less than that and it's really just easier to use the taskbar's alt-tab keystroke to jump around. But who regularly has more than three browser windows open at once? Power users, probably, which makes the benefit less of an advantage for the rest of us.

For us normal users who mainly use the web for research, shopping, and posting stories and photos, there is little to distinguish Mozilla from Internet Explorer, other than Mozilla isn't made by The Man. Which, I suppose, would be enough on its own, but there is one area where Mozilla clearly differs greatly from Internet Explorer.

The damned thing doesn't show webpages correctly!

That's right, the browser that is trying to steal market share from Internet Explorer does not succeed at the single most important feature of a web browser: showing webpages. Mozilla's position on this, based on reading their website, is that they are W3C-compliant and therefore it's not their problem if the websites we are trying to view are not also W3C-compliant. W3C sets the international standard for hypertext, they reason, so their browser should work fine. "Should" being very much the operating word here.

Let's take a quick look at W3C. It's the World Wide Web consortium, a nonprofit founded in 1994 to set standards for the web. Since that time it has been largely ignored not only by Microsoft but by most software developers -- as webmasters from the 1990s "Battle of the 4.0 Browsers" between Netscape and Microsoft will painfully recall. Back then, when there actually was such a thing as competition for web browsers and you even had to pay for the better ones, nobody paid much mind to W3C. It was a nightmare for site developers who were faced with either coding everything twice or sticking with HTML 3.0. Netscape solved this problem by issuing progressively worse browsers, to the point where Microsoft controlled 97% of the market by the turn of the century.

Fast forward to the present, where Mozilla is now chirping up a storm about how their browser is the only truly "standards-compliant" browser -- meaning W3C-standards-compliant -- in a market that is still 94% Internet Explorer. They tout this W3C compliance as a major advantage that will make web browsing so much better for everyone, while ignoring the teensy little detail that the web has never been W3C compliant, and for the past four years, the idea of an independent standard has been laughable in the face of a market with no practical competition. Here's a quick marketing reality check: the product that controlls over 90% of a market is the standard. Any product that hopes to dethrone, or even chip away at, a dominator like that had better be able to do everything the dominator can do. For example, display webpages designed for the dominator's browser. Just as a starting point. I mean really, come on.

Instead, Mozilla is hiding behind a "standard" that no one cares about and has no relevance in the marketplace. By measuring themselves against the wrong yardstick, they have chosen to be alternative rather than competitive. They will never be any more than a footnote in the industry until the next big shift shakes the market -- a shift that will not be instigated by the Mozilla effort, leaving them once again in the position of reacting rather than driving. Will they react fast enough? Probably not, if the next big shift is not W3C-compliant.

The Mozilla people are fully aware that their browser won't correctly display webpages designed to work with Internet Explorer. In fact, they've got a whole section on their website dedicated to "Mozilla Evangelism", which consists of instructions on how to annoy website owners who insist on (gasp!) programming their websites to maximize Internet Explorer (94% of the market), while perhaps incidentally inconveniencing users of Mozilla (3% of the market). The solution to the incompatibility problem, in Mozilla's eyes, appears to be to reprogram the 4.3 billion (4,285,199,774) webpages in the world rather than fix the one (1) browser that they develop.

That they would even suggest such an absurity, to say nothing of encouraging hapless users to evangelize about it, points to the incestuous nature of these types of open-source development schemes. Though touted as open to all voices, in truth the only ones heard (mainly from lack of interest for the rest of us) are the internetisti, the small cadre of hardcore internet careerists and hobbyists who live and die for the internet. The customer -- a big chunk of that 94% of the market that Mozilla does not have -- is not really involved in this sort of thing, because the customer by and large does not give a damn so long as the webpages work. In a corporation dedicated to finding and keeping customers, there are people who are dedicated to making sure that the toys coming out of the engineering department hold an appeal beyond the engineers who developed them. Open-source projects such as Mozilla, however, consistently ignore this critical step, leaving them with products of interest mainly to other internet developers rather than to the larger market.

(I might call this the Linux Factor, but I wouldn't want to stray too far off topic.)

Sadly, the end result of Mozilla's effort will only be a strengthening of Internet Explorer's position. As users try Mozilla then abandon it out of frustration because it is not compatible with their favorite websites, those users will be less inclined to try another upstart browser -- a browser that, perhaps, would have been good enough to break Explorer's hold on the market. If this is the best the competition can manage, then competition is good -- for Microsoft.