I have been wanting to write this article for a while. Years, in fact. I am determined to write it in the simplest possible format: no punch-line at the bottom, no building up to a grand conclusion, but simply stating something impressive, true, and simply wonderful: the hegemony that Internet Explorer once upon a time had is... over. Right now, other browsers are fighting amongst each other, and it's all about how much of IE's share they are getting. The war is over: Internet Explorer lost. Everybody else won.
So, what kind of scenario has the IT world painfully missed? And more importantly, now that the deed is done, what are the consequences?
What the risks were
First of all, I really feel the need to point out that Microsoft with a de-facto monopoly would have been disastrous for the IT world -- and for the world in general. Thing is, I am not exaggerating. Yes, I am the editor of Free Software Magazine and therefore am bound to talk in extreme terms about the dangers of the proprietary competition. However, "no": a stronghold of Microsoft in the browser's world would have had far, far reaching consequences. First of all, Microsoft's attempt to push VB script could have been successful, pushing the client-side problems even further. Also, all the Windows-only technologies would have been more and more common as time went by. Being Australia (and proudly so, if I may say), I remember a few years back when Westpac (or Challenge Bank) released their new module to their powerful Internet Banking: the "money planner". It was a very neat system, which allowed you to keep track of expenses on your accounts. And it was based on ActiveX -- y es, ActiveX! That's all gone now (thankfully), but that happened while IE had a major, major market share. (In fact, I would love to hear your horror stories of IE-only web sites). The risk was that Microsoft had total control of the web experience, and that the web itself -- the crucial ring in the Internet chain -- was totally controlled by a company with a history of embracing, extending and extinguishing. Eventually, GNU/Linux as a desktop would have become simply non-viable because it couldn't run Internet Explorer. Worse, mobile desktops (mobile phones, PDAs, Android phones, or anything that didn't run Windows mobile) would have been much less useful for the same reason.
The web would have been a much more hostile place for non-Windows devices.
Thing is, the only way to avoid this wasn't just "create a competitor" -- instead, the free software world needed to create a successful competitor -- one with major market share, one with millions of users complaining, loud, if an important web site were "IE only".
Some data to rejoice first
First of all, some raw information to rejoice. I find that Wikipedia is the best source for Web Browsers' usage and stats. It includes that latest report from Net Applications, which resonated loud in the IT world (and in mainstream magazines as well): IE dropped below 60% -- 59.79% to be precise. 59.79% sounds like a lot, but you need to remember that IE comes pre-installed on most computers sold in the world. When you press "Internet" on your new Windows machine, you run Internet Explorer. So, a great percentage of that 40.21% who doesn't use explorer are people who had to actively do something (see: download another browser and install it) to give IE the boot. That's a huge result. (Note that this is no longer true in Europe, where Microsoft now has to provide an application that allows people to pick which browser to use, although many people doubt that such a thing is effective).
I can't tell you why people are running away from Internet Explorer. I can guess it -- we all can -- but it's hard to give a definite answer. Call it fashion, or security, or simply listening to some friend's advice. Things have changed -- a lot -- since IE's hegemony a few years back. And things are looking grimmer and grimmer for IE.
Who did it, really? And will it continue?
What marked the change? Was it just Firefox and Chrome? Mostly, yes. However, Safari (OS X's default web browser) and Opera (the last standing proprietary browser) also helped a little bit with their 6.2% of market share, although it's hard to say what those people would be using if their choice wereN'T AVAilable.
What is interesting, to me, is the future. It will be hard for IE to get that market share back. The trend is not looking good. Even if the other browsers magically started declining, IE has another problem: the mobile world. Millions of Android phones (I have one) and iPhones are invading the market. (By the way, they are both based on Webkit, which is rendering software released under a free license). Each phone is a non-IE user browsing the web, which will erode IE's market share further and further. (I will add anecdotal evidence here: I have only ever met one person in my life with a Windows Mobile phone, and they hated using it. But, maybe this is an Australian thing).
So, not only IE's future looks very gloomy... by the looks of it, things might be even worse than they look today.
What this means for the (IT and non-IT) world
What this means, is that "we did it". Most web applications are based on AJAX, and work on any browser. No bank will ever release an Internet Banking system that will only work on IE. Nobody can really afford to make a browser that behaves oddly, so that a web site will look "broken" on any other browser. The web will remain a well documented, free platform on which more and more people will develop. The Australian Tax Office is going to have to come up with a much better piece of software to pay your taxes online.
Incidentally, the article above ends with a very sad sentence: "The report, which was published last week, forecasts Windows 7 installations to increase to 18.8 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, Mac OS installations will increase slightly to 3.4 percent and Linux will remain at 2.0 percent.".
We did it for the browser, and it was quite a challenge. We did it with hard work, advocacy, sweat. We did it for the browser... and we can do the same for the desktop world as a whole.
I look forward to writing the same editorial talking about desktop computing.
I can hardly wait.