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An Open Web

The Browser and Web are Magic

The browser is your interface to the Web, and the Web is your interface to global knowledge. The browser handles the retrieval, presentation, and traversal of content,1 primarily from the World Wide Web. At a minimum, the browser is a tool for accessing global knowledge in the ether. But together, the browser and the Web are magic.2 Computers without Internet are useless dumb bricks.

The rapid increase in network speed, the decrease in cost of manufacturing hardware, and cheap internet access are pushing this form of web magic onto mobile devices-from netbooks, to mobile phones, to tablet computing. These devices are browsers. The battle for the Web is dependent upon you having control over the browser and demystifying the entire stack mediating between your consumption and production of knowledge, your communication with other people. Thus, we tackle first the traditional form of web browser, the browser as virtual software.

Since the first web browser, World Wide Web (Nexus), written by Tim Berners-Lee in 1991, the one of the most rapidly developed software types has taken many forms: from black and white text-only presentation like Lynx to non-visual braille browsers3 all the way to an over-bloated full groupware suite, Netscape Communicator. The options for a browser are as bountiful as you have time to download them.

However, the past browser warz have taught us that there are features which support individuals better. While the browser warz are beyond the scope of this book, it is crucial to understand that browser development not only defines how you can access the Web, but the browser is becoming the operating system on future devices. Browsers are, by no fault other than our own, becoming the default software application on new devices.4 For this book, we will look at the top four browsers, ranked in terms of market share: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari.

The Big Four

The largest browser, in terms of market share, is still Internet Explorer (IE). It won the first browser war, but by today it is notorious for bad security, partial support for standards, and closed strategies. With massive support behind it in cash money from Microsoft, IE is king in the largest markets in the world, USA and China. After auto-distributing IE downwards onto Microsoft's dominant operating system platform, Windows, IE crushed the rest of the competition.

In the late nineties, as Microsoft's Internet Explorer rapidly gained more users, Netscape came up with a strategy to release their source code in order to harness the power of the pre-existing Free Software Movement, which advocated software freedom5. Since Netscape couldn't get more people to use their browser, and didn't have the huge budget that Microsoft strategically pummeled competitors with, Netscape decided to release the source code and do a community marketing blitz with coining the term Open Source6. This strategy allows for sharing software freely and legally and for any changes to be released to the public for community benefits. Netscape released their browser code into the Mozilla community project over time (in a very long ongoing story too long for this book). Mozillians, the funny community name for Mozilla supporters, aligned with this approach to attract more business users, and fought back to gain about 30% of the global browser market share from IE at the end of 2010. This is the dominant OPEN browser. It has better security, supports standards, and localization for people around the world.

Meanwhile, as Steve Jobs re-ascended to Apple's throne, having gone through purgatory to learn about content strategies from Pixar and Disney,7 he re-built his Apple empire, the forbidden fruit of computing, on the Free Software stack. He took a diamond in the rough, recast it as WebKit from the Free Software desktop KDE,8 polished it off, and named it Safari. This technology is now at the center of Apple devices, from their desktop, to the iPhone to the iPad. To expand upon this critical strategy, Google also built their new browser off of the Open Source WebKit technology, calling it the faceless, but fast, Chrome.

Choosing a Browser

At the birth of the Web, basic standards existed to govern the "get and put" of information between a browser (client) and a server. With the explosion of new web browsers, the lack of standards between the browsers provided a bad experience for website operators hoping that people viewing their sites could have the same experience. Also, we learned that corporate interests from Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer would exploit the lack of standards to force more people to use their products to have a more consistent experience. The more people who used a browser, the more likely the consistency of the collective experience. One of the worst examples of this is the <blink> tag, created by Netscape.9

In selecting a browser, it is important to consider how healthy a browser project and its sponsors are in keeping the project alive. At the beginning of the first browser war, Microsoft dominated the other browsers with huge advertising and marketing budgets. Now, Google pumps loads of capital into the rapid development of its new Chrome browser, while it also pays many millions to Mozilla every year for using Google search as Mozilla Firefox's default search option. Remember. The top browsers are spending loads of cash on gaining more users and making their browsers best for you. They want to remove any objections for you to not use their browser.

You can make a difference in the battle for the open web by choosing a browser which:

  • Is Free and Open Source Software;
  • Has a healthy community ecosystem supporting its continued development and growth;
  • Supports Open Web standards;
  • Rapidly fixes bugs, and explores features, relating to user security and privacy.

Still the dominant browser in the world is Internet Explorer, but after several browser wars and the continued success of the Free/Open Sources Software movements, the combined marketshare of Mozilla Firefox, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome is more than Microsoft's Internet Explorer.10 And, importantly, this has forced Internet Explorer to play by the rules more with open standards. Now, you can select a browser which allows you to maximize your potential actions and help win the battle for the open web.

While the authors of this book have tried to provide options that support your autonomy, to fight the battle for the open web, your major choice for a browser is between Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. The WebKit engine that powers Apple's Safari is Open Source, however other parts of Apple's interface is proprietary. You cannot control it and see what is actually inside of the software. Oddly enough, this is called chrome in software lexicon, meaning the visual elements around the invisible engine, WebKit, which delivers the web to you.

Many consider Mozilla Firefox the best Open Source web browser because it has by far the largest community of developers, both volunteers and employees paid by Mozilla Corporation. Also, it is one of the largest advocates for the Open Web. The sole shareholder of Mozilla Corporation (MoCo) is the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation (MoFo). Therefore, Mozilla projects will never suffer the fate of some open source projects, where the corporate sponsor is bought out by an open-source-unfriendly company. A potential threat to Mozilla is that it is reliant upon its competitor in the fight for the best browser, Google, which writes checks to Mozilla from a renewable search deal. However, many from Mozilla will say they have $100 Millions USD in a savings account in case Google starts acting funny. Another weakness is that Mozilla is still holding onto some infrastructural baggage that Google Chrome has jettisoned with a more closed form of development, but with a huge budget and focus on speed, speed, and more speed. At the time of this book, the release of Mozilla Firefox 4 is several months later than expected, while Google Chrome understands the public realidad and perception of need for speed in continuously releasing Chrome 6, 7, 8, and 9, in rapid succession. Plans are afoot to move Firefox releases to a similar schedule, with Firefox 5 arriving later in 2011.

In terms of security, privacy and standards, Mozilla Firefox has taken the biggest stand that is outside the boundaries of Google's slurping and analyzing of massive personal information from the Internet. With Google's search spidering of the Internet and massive cross-wiring of public facing services, another path to putting advertisements in front of more clicking fingers,11 even though Google provides options to not tie its Chrome browser to your accounts on Google, the whole browser works better if you do let it synchronize with the mothership.

In your battle for the Open Web, you must decide right now if you want a browser you control completely, Mozilla Firefox, or one which is fast, but could compromise your autonomy, Google Chrome. From a competitive vantage point, the more slow development of Mozilla Firefox appears chaotic sometimes and not focused on "winning" as the dominant browser. This also may be viewed as a strength as Mozilla supports more people globally and is the largest Open Source browser by market share. Sometimes gaining a consensus and receiving more contributions slows development, insuring a form of stability that military-style Google Chrome development exemplifies. The battle for the Open Web is more slow than one might be led to believe with the urgency of words in this book or number of advertisements placed on bustops. Remember. Mozilla Firefox has emerged from multiple browser warz over a number of years as the dominant browser fighting for the open web and supporting autonomy.

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_browser^
  2. I dare not quote the most quoted essay of all time by Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." However, its foundational concepts and context of writing this book in Berlin are felt. Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Work_of_Art_in_the_Age_of_Mechanical_Reproduction and http://www.arteclab.uni-bremen.de/~robben/KunstwerkBenjamin.pdf^
  3. http://mozbraille.mozdev.org/^
  4. Essentially, we are implying they are becoming the operating system.^
  5. The Free Software movement is discussed in more detail in our chapter "Software is a Global Interface to Hardware."^
  6. A summary of this jump from Free Software to Open Source essentially meant that Free Software ideologies and people confused the business world with the use of "Free" and "Software" together. The primary people from the Free Software movement were not part of the decision to recast the sharing of source code as "Open Source," also an attempt to separate the fervent long beards from those trying to grow Free Software to larger markets.^
  7. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/06_06/b3970001.htm^
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WebKit^
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blink_tag^
  10. However, Open Browsers combined market share dominance is not the problem now. The battleground has moved to controlling your attention and focus. The browser is not just software, the browser is an integration of hardware and software. And, Apple, the second largest company in the USA and the world's largest technology company in terms of market cap are leading the lockdown integration of the mobile device, an integration of software and hardware, with Google fighting for the open web through its Android as the integrated browser on hundreds of manufacturers devices globally. Yet again, you are the battleground, how can you battle for accessing others and transmitting your knowledge?^
  11. Or, are they russian botnets: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Botnet^

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