Monday, November 11, 2013

War of the Gatekeepers

Although the Internet encompasses many things, we often colloquially use the term 'Internet' to refer to what is known as the Web. The Web is the specific part of the Internet where you have web pages and web sites (aha, it all comes together!). The interface that most people use to interact with the Web is a web browser.

You know what's nostalgic? Market failure.

Your web browser is one of those things that you tend to take for granted. They're sleek, they're nondescript, they're just a natural part of our online routine. Being your browser of choice, however, is like getting to be your personal gatekeeper to the Internet - all web traffic must go through you first.

Naturally, many have vied for being the gatekeeper of choice. The so-called "browser wars" unwittingly became one of the most visible business struggles on the Internet - as well as a business struggle that would likely color all online business struggles to come.
The first browser - known as WorldWideWeb - was made in 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee, the man responsible for the Web technology that encompasses most of our Internet use. In its wake came many different web browsers with varying functionality and design. In 1993, the Mosaic browser was released and practically set the standard for browsers to come, being the first to lay out a lot of common browser features we see today - the URL bar, the reload button, and other basic things. Mosaic imitators would emerge, but the original developers of Mosaic - and their dinosaur logo - would move on to a different team and work on a new browser: Netscape Navigator.

Netscape Navigator was the dominant web browser of the mid-1990s, just as the Internet began taking flight in collective conscience. For many, Netscape was one of the main gatekeepers to the World Wide Web. When you were first going online, chances are one of the first logos that would greet you was Netscape's signature "N" beyond the hill. It was functional, relatively aesthetically pleasing, and had widespread visibility.

This was a privilege that many companies came to envy, particularly company giant Microsoft. Microsoft released Internet Explorer (IE) in the mid-90s and kicked off what would become known as the browser wars. Microsoft already had a stranglehold on the market for operating systems, and having their browser come along with their OS was a no-brainer.

The teams behind both browsers had heated rivalries. Upon the release of a new version of IE, the Microsoft team set up a giant ten-foot "e" logo in front of the Netscape work building. Netscape's team fired back with their own logo - a dinosaur named Mozilla - stomping down on the "e" logo. The two browsers would have specialized code, often forcing consumers to use one browser or the other in order to properly view certain websites. Netscape had blinking text, IE had scrolling marquees, and nobody was amused.

Through its sheer heft as a company, Microsoft pushed its way into the browser scene and by 2002, it dominated 96% of the browser market share. With its near-monopoly, IE could be complacent with its platform, resulting in very little innovation within the browser through the early 2000s. Netscape Navigator lost official support from its parent company in 2008, but it was clear much earlier that Netscape had lost its role as the web's main gatekeeper.

But even back then, Netscape sowed the seeds for its eventual rebirth.

Though I gotta say, going from dinosaur to fox was kind of a logo downgrade.

In 1998, Netscape made their browser code open-source and gave it to the Mozilla foundation. Fueled by the collaborative power that the Internet would come to make famous, Netscape's code would become something unrecognizable from its parent browser. In 2004, Mozilla released Firefox 1.0 and leapt into the Microsoft-dominated arena (though, fun fact, it was originally going to be called Phoenix).

Firefox was the populist answer to IE's empire. Being open source meant that anybody could design new features for the browser and post them online for people to use. Frustrated consumers could finally circumvent IE's performance issues by adopting a browser that they could customize for themselves. The Mozilla foundation joined forces with another marginalized web browser team - Opera - to push for new definitions for Web standards that would provide an open alternative to IE. By 2005 Firefox pushed itself into 10% of the market share. By 2008, it pushed even further into 20%, especially having popularity among younger Internet users.

Microsoft took notice. In 2009, IE was up to its eighth version and came with an ad campaign seemingly tailored for a younger, more net-savvy population. This would be a pattern that we'd come to see of IE - stellar ad campaigns that would poke fun at its previous deficiencies and brand itself with a more socially commanding image. They would conjure memes, incorporate trending music styles, and play up 90s nostalgia. Their most recent ad is a two minute Japanese animation of an anthropomorphic IE schoolgirl fighting robots in an indeterminate dystopia.

Microsoft's attempts to recapture their lost audience fell completely flat. Although people took notice of their ads, Firefox's value as a product kept shining through. Internet Explorer had dipped below 50% of the market share by September of 2010, with Firefox sitting at a comfortable 31%. Netscape, from beyond the grave and through its progeny, has taken revenge on its old foe. More pressingly, contrary to conventional business wisdom, open source had toppled an empire.

Of course, those percentage points only add up to 81%. The rest of the market share was comprised of Opera, Apple's Mac-specific Safari browser, and the myriad of niche browsers. There was also a fairly new addition to the browser roster, quickly gaining momentum and showing little sign of slowing down: Google Chrome.

Not to be confused with a pokeball or anything.

Chrome's rise to prominence has not been nearly as interesting as IE's rise and fall or Firefox's strange ancestry. Since its release in 2008, Chrome has steadily amassed its market share until, in 2012-2013, it surpassed both Firefox and IE. This rise has come with hardly any fanfare or controversy - perhaps it's a less interesting story than something like Firefox, which was pegged as an underdog from the conception of its very business model. Or, perhaps we're avoiding making parallels between Google and 90s-era Microsoft, where we see a large company push its resources into a new arena and find rapid success.

The truly interesting thing about the browser wars is how visible it was to anyone who uses the Internet. A common topic in online hubs would be to talk about what your browser of choice was. This is how word of mouth would spread about alternatives to IE in the 2000s. Browsers were such a fundamental part of the online experience that it was impossible to avoid discussing them.

It isn't like there weren't colorful business competitions before the Internet - the console wars in gaming gave us an equally visible rivalry between two brands of product. Something about the browser wars ran deeper than trying to outdo each other's ad campaign. No reasonable online consumer had brand loyalty to their browser. The arena is purely utilitarian - which gatekeeper offers the most functional gates? To this end, the browser wars was a relatively equal playing field. On such an open and information-centric platform as the Internet, the brand with the more favorable information about it won the day.

This is a tantalizing notion - the idea that the best product ultimately wins out in the end. It's a very capitalistic idea, so it is very deeply embedded in our Western culture. The Internet gives us the feeling that equal opportunity in business really has been achieved. Perhaps the browser market will soon find equilibrium, but I bet very few people will mind if Google Chrome keeps rising and ushers in a second near-monopoly. Because, in our perspective as consumers, it is the "best product" and deserves to win. After all, that's what brought IE down, right?

Somehow more palatable when it's an Internet company.

We saw a similar complacency as search engines came into their own. There used to be a ton of prominent search engines - AskJeeves, Lycos, AltaVista, DogPile, to name a few - but over time, Google emerged dominant. Even now, as search engines continue to compete with one another, Google retains its top spot. When we talk about why this is the case, the first thing that comes to mind is "because Google was better than those other engines". It's kind of nice that Bing has emerged as a high profile competitor to Google, because assuming that a company is dominating due to being the "better" service has clearly not always been the case.

This also happened with social networks. So too did MySpace find many emergent competitors in social networks - Facebook, Orkut, Badoo, for example. Of course, in that battle, MySpace ended up losing pretty badly. Facebook's firm positioning at the top has also given it a place where it can refine its targeted advertising. Perhaps that might make you uncomfortable, but if enough of your social circle uses Facebook, your options for social networking services end up having a soft limit.

Is this soft limit really because Facebook is the best service? Or is it a begrudging complacency with using a common platform? That isn't to say that common platforms are bad or that uncommon platforms are inherently better (bitcoin, for example, is completely awful), but is there a certain inertia that comes with settling with a common platform just because it's common?

There is another factor, though - the relative transparency of online business. Businesses have been vying for market dominance since the beginning of capitalism, but the most successful online businesses tend to have been founded online. The history of Google is still about as old as most people born in the 90s. Facebook's founder is younger than a significant fraction of the website's user base. We've watched these website companies climb from the bottom to the very top while actively participating in their services. In some sense, we feel like we're a part of something, much like how members of online hubs feel like they're a part of something when their online hangout of choice gets popular.

Compare this to older businesses. Most other consumable media are owned by a handful of companies. These older business networks are incredibly opaque, are probably older than most of the online population, and have narratives that have accumulated over multiple decades.  Something about that is fundamentally less accessible to a wider audience. AT&T - and even something like Coca Cola - don't have the same cultural power as something like Google or Facebook. The Internet is young, so its businesses simply seem more human to us.

But the Internet won't be young forever.

Keeping calm's got nothing to do with it.

The next generation isn't going to have the luxury of growing up with Google. They're not going to hear about the triumphs and milestones of online business innovation. They're going to hear about property battles, buyouts, and market exchanges. The magic of something like the browser wars - competitors vying for market dominance through the superior product in a brand new arena - isn't going to be around for much longer.

In fact, it's already begun. The inter-company conflicts on the Internet have gotten far more complex than browser functionality and weird mascot pranks.

Google's recently gotten involved in a patent war with Microsoft, Apple, Sony, and some other companies. Facebook jumped into the stock exchange in May 2012 and Twitter followed suit earlier this month. Individual online companies get bigger as they swallow other online companies - Yahoo now owns Tumblr and Google bought out YouTube in 2006. CNET has established itself as a technology network through the 2000s by buying out sites like GameFAQs, but CNET was in turn bought by pre-existing media conglomerate CBS in 2008.

The companies have grown in size and influence. Nobody bats an eye yet. Are we hanging on to the whimsical optimism that came with the browser wars? Why do we feel so uncomfortable with media giants and mega-corporations but feel fine with online businesses that are on track to join their ranks?

The counter-argument to all this is Open Source. Chrome's market dominance may come with about as much enthusiasm as the newest Pepsi product, but Chrome also isn't a product that anyone but Google has business getting excited about. Firefox's rise, on the other hand, was entirely user-driven. Thousands of independent collaborators had reason to be happy as Firefox stuck it to IE.

The problem with this is that open source doesn't exist in a vacuum. Chrome came about after Firefox established itself, and could design its product by learning from what Firefox was doing right. Open source might be a hotbed of innovation, but it also gives companies an accurate representation of what's in demand. Since Google will always have more resources on their side than Mozilla and its individual contributors, Google will always be able to look at what Firefox is doing and do it better.

The Internet is approaching the day when it stops being a fantastic new experiment that mostly tolerates people's ventures. Accountability and influence are rising forces online - and soon there will be real exchange of policy that happens on the same platform where, years ago, we were casually bickering about browser speed.

Maybe that's not strictly either good or bad. The Internet is still powerful, open, and innovative. Products are still getting better over time.  It's simply an awareness that the old face of business hasn't necessarily gone anywhere, and has already begun surfacing in our new platform.

It began with the gatekeepers. So follows the rest of the kingdom.


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