Can We Speed Up Browser Evolution?

So I just read the statement from the Mozilla Foundation which predicts 10% of the world’s web browsers will be Mozilla-based by the end of 2005. While some people seem pretty excited about this development, I can’t help but wonder if we are settling for too little here. 15 months? 10%? By comparison, every time a new version of the Flash plug-in is released, we get a predictable 80-90% penetration rate at the 15 month mark. Why can’t we expect this sort of development pace with browsers? Several reasons… some perhaps solvable and some perhaps not. This article will discuss several of the issues involved and recommend possible solutions.

Leadership and control

One of the biggest factors in the upgrade cycle differences between Flash and open source browsers like Mozilla is the lack of absolute control in open source development. When Macromedia sits down every year to plan their budgets and product releases, they need only to decide on an amount of money to invest in Flash development and a feature set. After these two decisions are made, the Flash team has their marching orders and they can begin setting things like release dates and migration strategies. Every member of the Flash team is paid a salary for their full-time dedication to the product over the next several months and since most Macromedia employees are in the same location, workplace synergies help to speed and enhance the development process.

Contrast this to the open source development process of the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla, like all open source projects, requires the individual contributions of people who, for the most part, butter their bread elsewhere in the internet economy. While there are a handful of people working full-time on the project, a large amount of the contributions are made from people who pitch in after hours, on their own volition. This is the very spirit that makes open source what it is: a distributed group effort aimed at creating public good. While that goal is arguably more honorable than the goal of say, Macromedia, its built-in disadvantages are obvious. As far as I know, there is no single person in the Mozilla Foundation who can push through a feature set without the approval of many others. This is, of course, by design, but again, it carries its own disadvantages. There is also no open-source equivalent to a Macromedia manager awarding bonuses or extra stock grants to employees working overtime for a product launch. Since Mozilla participation is voluntary and only intrinsically rewarding, artificial motivation injection is severely sacrificed.

So you might be saying, “But you’re comparing Flash to a browser… that’s not fair”. Okay, well let’s look at Safari then. Safari took about a year and a half to become arguably the best browser in the world, on any platform. Why? Leadership and control. Dave Hyatt and the small team he worked with at Apple were able to take the little-used open-source KHTML rendering engine and set real objectives for it. Using the famous Steve Jobs mantra of “real artists ship”, Hyatt and his team not only improved the rendering engine itself by leaps and bounds but they built an entire framework for web browsing on OS X called WebKit. And on top of that, Apple’s improvements to KHTML were donated right back to the open-source community for use in other KHTML projects. Why did Apple do this? Because they realized that their strength on the web relies on interoperable, open standards. This is the opposite of Microsoft’s early stance that IE must contain technologies only available to it and not other browsers.

* I want to pause right here and make it clear that nothing in this article is meant as a knock against Mozilla, open source, or anybody involved in either. Firefox — now that it’s on the right track — is clearly the most important product in the browser world today and this article aims only to examine how to help speed its progress and adoption.

Transparency of operation

With each new version of any given browser, observable changes are made to the interface. New menu options are added. A new icon is sometimes designed and placed in a different place on the user’s computer than the old icon. Chrome looks different. Bookmarks are sometimes not carried over correctly. Toolbars and other customizations may be removed. The list goes on and on. Generally speaking, users hate change, and when change is introduced during an upgrade cycle, the first reaction in users is almost always negative. Sure, this feeling may subside once the user begins to appreciate the improvements, but it still creates “upgrade anxiety” as users are afraid of what changes any new browser will bring.

Compare this to a Flash upgrade. Flash is completely transparent to the user. There is no interface. In fact, this is what initially attracted me to Flash 2 back in the mid 90s. When a user upgrades Flash plug-ins, the only noticeable difference is that more robust applications are now available to them. And even then, applications which take advantage of the newest capabilities of Flash only begin trickling in over the next year or so. In other words, there is no shock, and hence there is no anxiety.

Ease of upgrade

Simply put, Flash has set the gold standard for software upgrades via the web. By marching to their own standard and using both the object and embed tags in a smart fashion, new versions of Flash are instantly and transparently available for PC IE users and pretty easily available to the rest of the world as well. A restart is usually not required, no user data is affected, and the size of the upgrade is anywhere from a few hundred kilobytes to about a megabyte in size. Over a broadband connection, the upgrade is usually complete from start-to-finish in a matter of seconds. Over a dialup connection, it may take a few minutes. But the most important aspect of the upgrade is that there is almost no possibility of confusion for the user. It feels more like getting a package in the mail than moving to a new city.

Browsers, on the other hand, are notorious for their difficult upgrade procedures. Now, when I say “difficult”, I don’t mean difficult to you and me. Any power user of web technologies and computer systems can figure out how to upgrade rather easily… and that is part of the reason we are always the first to upgrade. Take your average computer user, however. This is the person who thinks that little blue “e” icon on their desktop labeled “The Internet” actually is the internet. How many times have you heard the phrase “my internet won’t launch” or even from President Bush in the debates, “I hear there’s rumors on the Internets…” The fact is that part of the reason Internet Explorer has a 95% market share right now is that Microsoft has successfully reduced the concept of the internet down to a postage-stamp sized icon on your desktop.

You want to get people using Firefox? You need to do a lot more than just coerce them into clicking a “Download Now” link. You need to educate them on what a browser is and why it’s not a “different internet” but rather a different agent between them and the internet. It’s a tricky proposition because this revelation definitely adds a layer of complexity to a user’s perception of the internet, but at the same time, it’s an important layer to know about. It is an assistive layer, a navigational layer, and most importantly a protective layer. And so, the best way to introduce this layer is to succinctly spell out its advantages, as has been done very nicely on the Browse Happy site.

Isolation of the rendering engine

I separate a browser upgrade into two parts: The interface and the rendering engine. The interface is everything outside the viewport and the rendering engine is everything inside of it. For the most part, the interface is completely localized and does not materially affect the display of web content. It lets you do things like print a page, add a bookmark, or toggle between windows. The rendering engine, however, radically affects the display of web content and is codependent on things like HTML, CSS, and and Javascript in order to do its job. It is this sometimes-symbiotic, sometimes-antibiotic relationship between the rendering engine and the code we develop for it which causes the majority of headaches in web developers’ lives and retards web publishing by years at a time.

As much as I like tabbed browsing, more sophisticated autofill, and better bookmark organization, these are clearly user interface features within the browser itself and I’m happy letting users decide if and when to apply the upgrades which introduce them. But as for the rendering engine, I feel like this is the sort of thing that should be applied automatically every 1-2 years or at least pushed in front of the user in a persuasive yet polite way… a la Flash.

“We’ve noticed your browser needs to be quickly tuned. The necessary components have already been downloaded. Click here to tune-up.”

What got me thinking about this was one day several months ago when I launched my MSN Messenger client and was greeted with the message “Due to security upgrades, you must upgrade your version of MSN Messenger to 4.8 in order to log into the MSN Instant Messenger network”. Wow! As long as this doesn’t happen too often (it’s happened only once to me), it’s a spectacular way to get everyone on the same page. I bet Microsoft was able to upgrade their entire population of MSN IM clients within a month or two since the upgrade was more or less mandatory. Why do we settle for any less in browsers? If we could limit automatic updates to the rendering engine alone, users could scarcely argue that an upgrade was any sort of risk.

Furthermore, if this sort of reliable upgrade cycle started in the 90s, where would we be right now? CSS-7? We’re already at Flash 7. Look at all the progress that has been made between Flash 2 and Flash 7 and apply even 50% of that progress to the browser space. Would it cause more frequent redesign cycles for web sites? Sure. But all that does is create jobs in the industry and it is certainly a legitimate investment in technology. Instead, companies are spending their money producing commercials with sock puppets. Additionally, when HTML and CSS specs are written, they are usually written in such a way which does not infringe on existing sites. Therefore, a company may still wait however many extra years they want before redesigning… they will just be missing out on possible extra site features.

Setting the standards

The specter of automatic, benevolent rendering engine upgrades re-introduces the question of control. If Safari, Mozilla, Opera, and IE are to release upgrades around the same time which introduce roughly the same rendering engine enhancements, clearly one of two things needs to happen:

  1. The W3C needs to draft a Kyoto Treaty of sorts and convince all major players (currently 4) to apply W3C recommendations to their rendering engines on perhaps a biennial basis. The W3C would draft the specs, the browser makers would have a month or two to discuss it and offer revisions, and then the final spec would be delivered. The spec would never be considered a finished product and thus it would never be committeed to death in the pursuit of perfection. How is this different from what happens today? Easy. There is currently no agreement and there are no hard timelines. We are dealing in recommendations which may or may not manifest themselves at some point in the future and that is why we see such slow progress. If someone asked you right now when you’d expect multi-column text flow to be supported in 90% of browsers, what would you say? I couldn’t even make a guess. If someone asked me when they could expect alpha-maskable Flash video to be viewable by 90% of the population, I could almost tell them the exact month.
  2. Representatives from the four major players in the browser world could just get together and decide on this stuff themselves. I’m not talking about a room full of people. I’m talking about a tent full of people. Camp David style. If they were smart, they’d expand the group with a Doug Bowman, a Shaun Inman, or other persons of noble repute, but the group would have to stay intimately small to be effective. Additionally, there would be little tolerance for idealism if it impeded speed. XML purists need not apply. The WHATWG is the closest thing I see to this right now. They are a small group self-charged with readying specs for next-generation web applications, and in many cases, they are the exact people I’d want on this board — people with the power to walk into their companies and order immediate product changes.

Some people will look at these two options and wonder if all parties would actually agree to such things. Well, maybe not, but I’m pretty sure 3 out of 4 would agree to some degree of it, and that’s enough to eventually push the 4th into irrelevance or acquiescence. If the recent success of Safari and Firefox has shown us anything, it’s that “open” wins in the long run, and if you aren’t producing what the community wants, the community will eventually not want you.

Backwards compatibility

The bane of the web developer’s existence, in many ways, is backwards-compatibility. It is important, however, to separate the concepts of backwards-compatibility in browsers and backwards-compatibility in code. If Mozilla, Apple, Opera, or Microsoft were to release a new browser, it must clearly be backwards-compatible with existing web sites which use older coding standards or just very poor coding practices. Without this backwards-compatibility, no one would adopt a new browser. Both Mozilla and Opera have struggled with this issue over the past few years, with plenty of sites (well built or not) not displaying properly in them. But now that smart error-tolerances have been built in, Mozilla and Opera are a joy to use. Standards purists will say that new browser versions shouldn’t have to deal with error tolerances and that web developers should just always build error-free sites, and they are right… but they are also ignoring the reality that most web sites will not be 100% standards-compliant for quite some time, if ever. Validation aside, there is other error-correction necessary in browsers related to various CSS quirks and how they affect the display of content on page.

So, backwards-compatibility in browsers is a must, and it will likely always be. But what about backwards-compatibility in code? This is going to make some people mad, but I have to admit that I am not for 100% backwards compatibility in code, in perpetuity. Let’s say I have an audience of 100 people who visit my site. Let’s say if I code and design with method A, it will produce good pages viewable by all 100 people. Now let’s say that if I code and design with method B, it will produce GREAT pages viewable by 99 of the people. The one person who can’t view my pages is maybe clinging to their copy of Netscape 4. How many people would choose method A? I wouldn’t. I’d choose method B, because the aggregate amount of quality I’m producing for my audience is worth losing one audience member over. Now, my example is assuming a 99% success rate. What is the lowest you’d go? Clearly, different people have different thresholds. I think most people would fall squarely in the mid to upper 90s. 97%, 98%, 99%… around that area. So if you’re going to forsake 100% backwards compatibility in code, as I do, the whole goal of increasing the pace of web standards improvement becomes a lot more attainable. After all, as with Flash, it may only take months to reach the 90% penetration rate, but it may take a lifetime to reach 100%.

* In making a decision to drop support for certain user agents, it is obviously important to do your homework first. Different sites call for different practices. For example, an e-commerce site may lose a lot of money if only one customer cannot access the site… whereas an ad-supported site does not share this concern. This is part of the reason why the eBays and Amazons of the world still code the way they do.

In digesting these views on backwards-compatibility, please keep in mind that I am not advocating throwing user accessibility aside in any shape or fashion — only user agent accessibility. What does that mean? If a person cannot see a web page because their vision is impaired, I have sympathy for them. I want to design and code in such a way that helps them. But if a user cannot see a page because they are too unmotivated to stop using Netscape 4, I really don’t have any sympathy for them. A bit of pity, maybe, but definitely not sympathy. In fact, I feel like these people would be better off in the long run if every web site in the world turned them away at the door (as is starting to happen). Now, some people will just say “Build your site in such a way that it degrades gracefully in these sorts of browsers”. To that, I say fine, if your site is heavily text-oriented and stylistically sparse. But if you want to do things on your site which require some of the newer W3C standards and other interactive touches, the reality is that your site just may not degrade very well. Other people will say “Well just serve an unstyled page to these users”. Again, I say fine, but does anyone really enjoy sites with completely unstyled content? If you’re a layout-intense media site, your “unstyled” site is going to look and feel a lot worse than Yahoo’s intentionally sparse site, so the 1% of users who may see your unstyled page are probably better off going to Yahoo.

My point here is that I feel like for most sites, using modern coding standards with perhaps a tad less backwards-compatibility is okay to do. It’s your site. Why let such a tiny percentage of people dictate how you design and code it?

By the way, as a further footnote to this point, I am also not saying it’s ok to say things like “Okay, my audience is 95% PC IE so I’ll just code for that.” That is NOT the message. The message is, “Let’s speed the adoption rate of W3C standards and let’s also speed the rate at which we apply them on our own sites.” If that causes a few more people to upgrade browsers before they’d like to, so be it.

In most cases, you are providing your site to the world completely on your own volition. As much as people would like to believe otherwise, it is not the right of every citizen to be able to view it. If you wanted to, you could write your whole site in gibberish or you could password-protect the entire thing. It doesn’t matter. It’s your right to do so. The notable exception here is government agencies, who are required to provide certain information to all citizens within their region. The other notable exception, of course, is in matters of accessibility. Just as one should not discriminate on race, creed, color, or sex, one should not discriminate on disability. So before anyone comments on that, let’s be clear that when I suggest perhaps ditching some backwards-compatibility, accessibility is not part of what should get ditched. In fact, by adopting new accessibility standards, accessibility should actually be improved. Should we really be using all of these counter-intuitive image replacement techniques? With better standards and faster adoption of said standards, we can ditch the need for these tricks.

Next steps

So what can we do to help radically speed the adoption of better browsers and gradually raise the backwards-compatibility bar? Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Help spread Firefox to every computer you can get your hands on. I’m talking about your parents’ computers, your coworkers’ computers, computers in public spaces, etc. Don’t just download it. Install it, import everything you can, and place its icon where the old browser’s icon was. Obviously don’t remove any old browsers, but make it as easy as possible for users of said computer to subtly modify their browsing routine so that it goes through Firefox. In cases where education is necessary, take a few minutes to explain why switching is a good thing. Use hyperbole when necessary.
  2. Design and code your sites specifically with modern web standards in mind. Most of your testing, up through completion of the layout, should be done in standards-compliant browsers like Safari and Firefox, and then you can add whatever hacks you need after that to massage the layout into other browsers. I find these days that the only hack I generally even need is the underscore hack, which is extremely easy to implement.
  3. If you are faced with a choice between forward-looking code and backward-looking code, choose forward-looking in all cases except where a significant portion of your audience may be alienated. A quick example of this is the Netscape 4 example. If 1% of your audience uses Netscape 4 and designing a Netscape 4-friendly layout creates 30% more work and 30% more code and isn’t as pure as you’d like it, consider ditching Netscape 4 compatibility. Go ahead and serve them an unstyled page if you’d like, but don’t get hung up on how it looks.
  4. Continue to push the limits of the web and exert pressure on browser makers to continuously improve their products. I am so happy with how far Mozilla and Safari have come in the last couple of years and I’d love to see the momentum continue. Rendering current sites beautifully is a great start. Rendering future sites even more beautifully is the overriding goal. Give us drop-shadows for arbitrary objects. Give us multi-column text flow capabilities. Give us the ability to clear absolutely positioned divs. Without designers and developers clamoring for these improvements, we’ll enter another period of stagnation. Don’t settle for simple text-based bloggish layouts for everything you do. I, along with Shaun Inman, Tomas Jogin, and Mark Wubben, invented sIFR to give people richer, more beautiful typography on the web; but another reason we invented it was to show precisely how silly it is that it’s even necessary. Now that there are sites out there which make beautiful use of it, browser makers and standards bodies have at least a working model of what people are looking for.
  5. Create the Rapid Browser Improvement Delta Force (or R.B.I.D.F.) I mentioned earlier in the article. I’m serious when I say that I’d rather have a handful of representatives determine actionable browser improvements and then immediate act on them than wait for initiatives work their way through years of committees only to result in hopeful recommendations. Please know that this is not a knock on the incredible amount of thought and effort coming from these committees… it is just a realization that sometimes the more people who are involved in a decision and the more perfect these people try to make that decision, the slower things tend to move. Sometimes you don’t need perfect decisions… you just need helpful, swift ones. If anyone has suggestions for such a panel of people, please post them in the comments. 10 or less people sounds about right to me.


I realize that some of my thoughts on browser development are a bit naive (seeing as I have never developed one myself), but I’ve been in this industry long enough to know that the inability for us to use newer coding standards shortly after they are released is largely self-imposed. We settle for browsers which don’t upgrade their rendering engines transparently, we settle for specifications which take too long to pass through large committees, and we settle for coddling to the 1% of the population who doesn’t see fit to upgrade with the rest of us.

We need to quit settling.

Do your part by helping spread standards-compliant browsers like Firefox, Safari, and (sometimes) Opera to as many computers as possible. With a little bit of help, I think we can obliterate this ultra-conservative 10% prediction by the end of 2005. Don’t stop with browser proselytizing though. Gather usage statistics on your site and plan migration strategies for a move to more modern code. If you reckon you’ll be able to dump support for Browser X in 12 months, begin laying the groundwork right now. And finally, keep pushing the boundaries of web design and development so that the people up in the hills who write stuff into stone know that we’re not going to wait for what’s right when we can have what’s right now. We need to get web publishing back on the fast track, and by rapidly speeding both the evolution and the adoption of modern web standards, we can create an efficiency and innovation boom this medium has never seen.

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79 Responses:

  1. Chris Hester:

    The only possible solution is a browser based on Flash. I keep waiting for this miracle to happen.

    There are actually people currently working on this. Enter DENG. Still not ready for prime-time but pretty impressive IMO.

    On the topic of separating a browser’s rendering engine from the GUI (which is absolute brilliance Mike), it would seem that Apple is already doing this with Safari (or at least really close to doing it). If you check out the Safari user agent string, AppleWebKit and Safari have separate version numbers.

    It’s just a shame they’re pre-empting MS’ mistake of tying the render engine version to the OS version…

  2. It’s just a shame they’re pre-empting MS’ mistake of tying the render engine version to the OS version…

    Isn’t the only way to get a new version of Safari (i.e. 1.2 to 1.3) to upgrade OSX as well though?

  3. Patrick Taylor says:

    Apple’s KHTML improvements are useless to Kdevs, see for info…..ergo Apple has contributed nothing to khtml.

    That’s both misleading and unfair.

    Apple makes the source available with WebCore which fulfills the requirement of the license. If you actually read the lists you’d see comments like this one by Leo Savernik on kfm-devel on Sept 22, 2004:

    > Are the reasons for which Apple’s patches/changes —
    > if they exist — have not been integrated with the
    > khtml codebase of a political, legal or otherwise
    > non-technical nature,


    > or are they the result or reduced developer
    > interest/manpower/time

    Yes, we severely lack manpower.

    > and/or unavailability by Hyatt and his colleagues?

    No, the Apple guys are usually quite responsive.

    The problem is in part that Apple provides too many changes and KDE has too few resources to deal with them. There is no question that Apple could do more (fund the Konqeror project, donate money, provide patches), but they do follow the license and that is really the most important thing.

  4. Great idea Mike, however why not take it even further by having one universal rendering engine?

    This should be a development of the W3C’s Amaya project into a WebKit-style piece of open source software which any browser maker could integrate into their browser.

    Imagine a world where websites rendered *exactly* the same on every OS and browser because the rendering engine was the same!

    For browser makers it would mean zero time spent on the rendering engine and more time & budget for developing the features of the browser. For the W3C it would make developing standards instantaneous. For users it would mean a better web experience without sacrificing the features of their favourite browsers. And of course for designers and developers it would be Nirvana!

  5. philip says:

    I like the Cascadia button.
    Might have to get myself own of those CAS bumper stickers.

  6. One point no one seems to mention is that accessibility can also refer to the developing world, where many of our cast-off computers seem to land. Where connect speeds are most likely sloooow. Where there’s a thirst for knowledge, but not necessarily the possibility of using a modern browser. And where the numbers of potential viewers is huge.

    I was discussing a recent accessibility showcase in Washington DC with a client in Geneva, who totally misunderstood what I meant when I said ‘accessibility’, because their website aims to be accessible to clients all over the developing world. While internet access is pretty good in Latin America and many areas of Asia, that’s not the case in Africa, with certain exceptions.

    And I’ve been discussing what level of browser to shoot for with a local client (a musical group), but without realizing that Firefox isn’t being developed for Mac OS 9, which they use. Now I realize that in redesigning their new site, I’ll have to take that into account… unless everyone thinks I should fire the client since their computer isn’t up-to-date!

    I’m not saying I don’t wish for 100% compliance to web standards tomorrow (better yet today), but I just want to remind everyone that millions and maybe billions of people may be shut out in addition to the disabled population if we act rashly.

    By the way, Olly, in Mac Firefox 1.0 preview release, the automatic update choice is in preferences, not tools.

  7. ben last says:

    Interesting, but I think you have a flawed premise. You define “best” as an absolute, and use Safari as an example (“the best browser in the world”). But “best” is a relative; what it means depends on the context in which it’s used. For Microsoft, or for AOL, “best” means “fits our commercial goals”. Which include trying to ensure that users of their browsers remain users of their browsers. The web is already full of IE-only pages; what possible incentive is there for Microsoft to particpate in your Camp David-style interaction? Note here that I’m *not* in any way accusing them of venality, or anything worse than established capitalist self-interest, which is what they exist *for*. It’s the duty they owe their shareholders and operating against that self-interest might even open them up for shareholder lawsuits.
    Wild extrapolations aside; “best” also has a meaning for the huge majority of end-users, those people who are not interested at all in the technical issues behind the web and who want it to “just work”. For them, “best” means “what works for me in the widest set of cases with the minimal effort and decision-making on my part”. They don’t care; choosing a browser is nothing like choosing a car, or a house or any other item for which the act of choosing is a big part of the fun. They just want to get to their websites and not be faced with oddly rendered or unsupported pages. For them, “best” means “what comes with my system” until it breaks. But it won’t break, because the web favours it amongst all browsers. It’s a positive feedback thing.
    Maybe we can wish that it ain’t so. But it is.

  8. Mike D. says:

    First of all, thanks to everyone for the detailed and thoughtful comments on this post so far. Apologies for not participating more heavily… just been a bit busy. I would like to make a few clarifications for the record:

    1. With regards to Safari being “arguably the best browser on any platform” — there is a reason I put the word “arguably” in there. It’s personal preference and I’m not saying one way or the other if I personally think it’s best. And besides, that’s really not the point of this post. It doesn’t matter whether Safari, Firefox, or Opera is the best… it just matters that together, they are clearly the best. The focus should be on getting everyone we know to use one of the three.

    2. The point about sending people with outdated browsers to an upgrade page is also not central to the article. My stance on this is soft, and I think however you want to do it is up to you. I personally think the best policy is to redirect to an upgrade page but then including a “Let me in anyway” link which cookies the user. Now… that said, I don’t think one should necessarily pay too much attention to the visual experience for people with obsolete browsers. My main point here is that if your demographics call for it, use modern code, and those who use obsolete user agents can either upgrade or deal with a little ugliness.

    3. Glad everyone seems to like the separate of the rendering engine theory. As someone mentioned, Apple is starting to do this a bit already, but unfortunately they seem to be tying this to OS upgrades. Bad.

  9. Byron McCollum says:

    Actually, seeds of Safari 1.3 for Panther incorporate rendering improvements from Safari 2.0 for Tiger.

  10. Alex Smith says:

    Safari 1.3 and Safari 2.0 have the same WebKit. The only difference is new Tiger UI features are only present in 2.0. Reading between the lines, it seems pretty clear that Apple is going to release the new WebKit on both Panther and Tiger and not tie it to a single OS version.

  11. I totally agree with the need for “grass roots” education of the users. I too have asked all my friends and relatives whey they still use IE and most reply “what’s IE?”

    So, where can I find a resource of short, to the point, simple to understand articles/fact sheets that I can pass on to these people?

  12. heinzkunz says:

    “every time a new version of the Flash plug-in is released, we get a predictable 80-90% penetration rate at the 15 month mark”

    Where did you get this information from?

    These numbers are overly optimistic. Do not trust the marketing-talk on Macromedia’s site.

  13. Mike D. says:

    heinzkunz: I can verify that the numbers Macromedia provides are accurate. I’ve been personally tracking Flash penetration at for 4 years now and my numbers are almost identical to Macromedia’s. By the way, there is no reason to be suspicious of their survey results. The surveys are conducted by NPD (the most reputable such firm in the world) and the methodology is such that actual users are measured, as opposed to what Apple and Microsoft do which is just to measure “total downloads”.

    80-90% of Flash at the 15 month mark is entirely accurate.

  14. Dan J says:

    I know this debate started back in November 2004, but to add a comment to this, I still actually use IE. I have been using Firefox, and to be honest, I think it is worse than any of them! Every time a Firefox browser loads, my PC runs extreemly slow until I close it again. As sometimes I run two browsers side by side (in which the tabbed method wouldn’t be very helpful), I am forced to return to IE. Opening 2 or more browser windows almost makes my PC come to a stand-still!
    I have tried Netscape, but find it has a totally horrible interface that I do not find very friendly. Once again I am back to IE as I do not see much point even trying Opera. I know that IE has many security risks, however I find that with SP2, you get the pop-up blocker, I have software to combat spyware and viruses, etc. But still IE, for me is the best option and the better browser… Microsoft just need to get some decent programmers who can actually make software and find their own bugs and risks like most other programmers do!

  15. Wow, so your article was written well over a half year ago, but sadly the problem hasn’t been solved yet.

    The answer I get when asking why folks keep using IE is: »Duh, it works just fine.« And I think that’s another problem that webdevelopers themselves create: there are a lot of sites out there using JavaScripts, table layouts and lots of ugly stuff just so IE renders their site correctly (to do hover:anything, for instance). Why? Nobody does that for NN4 anymore (or do they?), but because IE still has a high marketshare everyone »optimizes« for it and the user doesn’t even notice that he or she is using an obsolete browser. And IE keeps its marketshare. It’s a viscious circle, really.

  16. Collin says:

    An interesting announcement by an IE7 developer sheds some light on the next big browser we’ll need to support. Most of what I read here is good news but I am a bit disappointed with the fact IE7 will be wound so tightly into only the new Vista OS. It would have been better if Win2k, XP (early service packs) would be able to download the browser when it’s released. Now it will take a few extra years at least to weed out IE6 since many people like myself have been happy with Win2k as a development platform. I have no idea if IE7 will be able to port to Mac but I doubt it

    I have a feeling Longhorn/Vista and Microsoft in general are making a move towards making it easier and more automatic for computer novices to upgrade software. I HOPE so at any rate! Guess we’ll have to wait and see.

    Dan J, if you ever check this page again, I have used FireFox a lot lately and I know what you mean about it being slow. But mostly this is just the overhead from the software loading. Once FF loads you can browse around with no problems and some pages seem to load much faster then IE for me. I notice IE lags when there is a large amount of content with many positioned boxes. Don’t forget IE loads extra fast because of the way MS has it integrated into the OS. Some of the resources it needs are loaded at startup. The trade off for such seemingly fast loading MS software is a nice long wait for the system to boot up!

    P.S. I have loved Flash since version 2 but it was improvements that were made for Flash 3 that really made it a super smash success rather then just a 1 hit wonder. After that I realized that you could rely Macromedia to take it in the right direction. You can’t possibly argue with the numbers in regards to upgrades. They managed to make the upgrades quick, automatic, define a new standard and for the most part never even require the browser to be reloaded or system to be rebooted. A recipe for success. Even on Netscape upgrading was fairly painless.

    P.P.S. The seperate rendering engine view is a must. I have always complained on the part of IE, with ALL of their security updates that have gone out they never included patches for known bugs. Wadda Sin!

  17. For a start, I’d have you on the Delta Force commitee. You talk a lot of sense. I’m new to this design thing and I’m still learning all the little tricks to make the stuff I do IE freindly. It annoys me that I can design something that’ll validate for CSS and XHTML first time, and yet not work in IE. Why should I have have to write garbage to get my sites to work in the browser that 80 odd 90% of the world uses?
    My worry is that Microsoft will never sit down on your “Delta Force Commitee” and therefore render it a bit meaningless. Like it or not Microsoft do currently rule the roost in terms of user base.
    The fact that the Box Model Hack and the Underscore hack and the plethora of other little hacks exist at all says to me that the biggest browser company in the world could care less about the new web standards. If they don’t care, then the rest of us are screwed for a while to come.
    Hopefully, enough people will start to use standards complient browsers and Microsoft will stand up and take notice….

    I’m not holding my breath for this to happen though.

    As for my recomendations for the commitee, I’d like to name the usual suspects, Zeldman, Meyer, Bowman for the expertise, a representative from each of the 4 main browser houses, yourself, because it’s your baby and it makes sense, Tim Berners-Lee, Just because… and someone like me, a newcomer to it it all who’d just like a standard that meant something. Something they could learn to do the job from, and could stop the rest of them talking in words only a guy with a degree can understand.

    End of rant, sorry to take up everyone’s valuable time.

  18. The part you were speaking of in backwords compatiblity in code is how I feel to a T.

    Adam Lewis and I are programming Now for the most part you probably won’t digg it because it’s pretty much IE 5.5 and up due to it’s amount of use in drag and drop layers and extensive javascripting but our purpose and target is quality and our website is very friendly to the 75 to 85% of the people out there utilizing IE 6.0 and we’re glad. We are not concerned about the browsers that are very mildly used at this current time. I mean FireFox is the most growing browser out of all of the open source browsers and it’s still not very widely used according to our statistics of viewers visiting all of our network websites. We are building to it’s strongest IE 5.5+ abilities until either FireFox and other Mozilla style browsers catch up with IE or we decide to start programming a FireFox version of our service. There are so many more options and things we can do with Internet Explorer than the other browsers due to their Rendering Engines either avoiding it or not allowing these types of things to occur such as Drag-and-Drop layer technologies that we have written. I have always noticed the lack of compatibility with layers and Mozilla style browsers. I remember when I was younger and developing websites and till this day developing websites that use all tables for their structure instead of placing objects on the page with layers due to older netscape versions not interpreting layers at all and shoving all content to the left side of the page. Now that most sites are using layers and most browsers are picking up layers it’s not so much a problem. But the things we’re doing with these layers are incredible and not currently compatible with all of these other browsers that are popping up as well as the newer versions of Netscape and Safari.

    Thanks for reading!

  19. Tom Rowley says:

    This was an intriguing article with some lively follow-up discussion!

    I’ll side with the author on the backward compatibility issue (example: NN 4 support either very minimal or eliminated). It’s totally within the site owner’s right to choose to utilize newer technology while dropping support for older browser agents that are holding them back. It’s doesn’t express any malice or indifference toward the user, but on the contrary tries to deliver a better experience to them!

    Take for example what the government (finally) decided to do despite the acknowledged huge impact it will have millions of TV owners (something like 10% of households get their TV content via analog broadcast over their antenna):

    I think the point here is that when you have to start phasing out older technology, it’s not a question of “if” but really a question of “when”.

    Another example, I think rotary phones are still out there, but folks with rotary phones cannot expect (or demand the right) to be able to navigate the automated voice menu systems. Maybe there’s alternative phone numbers or methods out there which they can employ, but if they are available, they are usually not obvious or as simple as the touch-tone route.

    Hopefully, I didn’t muddle the issue too much with these two examples. Progress will not always be painless or convenient, but it is a natural process.

  20. Fast-tracking Browser Evolution

    Mike Davidson brilliantly comes up with a solution for speeding the evolution of browser development and increasing the adoption rate, by isolating the rendering engine from the interface. I separate a browser upgrade into two parts: The interface and…

  21. says:

    Mike Davidson: Can We Speed Up Browser Evolution?

    Mike Davidson: Can We Speed Up Browser Evolution? – A good article on the state of the browser and standards wars.

  22. The “Blue E” disease

    Figure 1 There’s a computer disease that not a lot of people recognize as disease (yet). Technically, it’s not a virus. However, it does make your computer more vulnerable to computer viruses, spyware and other bad things. How to recognize…

  23. Firefox krossar har börjat använda ett nytt statistik-verktyg, vilket är en möjlig felkälla i sammanhanget…. Ärligt talat trodde jag knappt det var sant när jag såg siffrorna.

  24. Link-Fu says:

    Browser Evolution

    Can We Speed Up Browser Evolution?…

  25. In the Big Scheme of Things…

    So Firefox 1.0 finally made its way out today. On a day of many anticipated releases, as today is also judgment day for the Xbox as the much anticipated Halo 2 comes out. But back to Firefox. It’s nice to see that finally a significantly better product…

  26. JD on MX says:

    Davidson on browser evolution

    Davidson on browser evolution: I missed this last week, but Mike Davidson responded in a different way to that “Moz expects 10% share by 2005” line that came out last week. He offers a long essay here comparing adoption of…

  27. Could Mozilla’s layout engine be an IE plugin?

    While reading Mike Davidson’s article on speeding up browser evolution, the first thought that came to my mind was, “Why isn’t Mozilla’s layout engine available as a plugin for Internet Explorer?” Yeah. That would make it so much like Flash: 80-90% ins…

  28. links for 2004-11-14

    Thinking like a Genius (categories: innovation) Mac OS X Power Tools (categories: apple) Reading Online Text: A Comparison of Four White Space Layouts (categories: usability) Mike Davidson: Can We Speed Up Browser Evolution? (categories: emergtech) Ju…

  29. Firefox is growing fast: Why are we predicting small numbers?

    According to the Mozilla Foundation only 10% of web surfers are going to be using a mozilla based browser by the end of 2005. ONLY 10 percent! Heh, Mike Davidson even seems to think that’s a bit out of proportion. I mean, even in the first two days of …

The Ocean in 185 Lines of Javascript:

Mesmerizing. Try tweaking some of the variables in the “sea” section of the code.

“"Design had been a vertical stripe in the chain of events in a product’s delivery; at Apple, it became a long horizontal stripe, where design is part of every conversation.””
Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away:

A great essay about how toxic everyday distractions can be.

Humanity's deep future:

A group of researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute talk about where our race may be going and how artificial intelligence could save or kill us all.

Steve Jobs speaks about the future at the International Design Conference in 1983:

31 years later, it’s safe to say this is one of the most prescient speeches about technology ever delivered. Jobs covers wireless networking, tablets, Google StreetView, Siri, and the App Store (among other things) many years before their proliferation. A fantastic listen.

How to travel around the world for a year:

Great advice for when you finally find the time.


A fantastic app for prototyping your design work onto real world objects like billboards, book covers, and coffee cups. This seems like just as great of a tool for people learning design as it does for experts.

50 problems in 50 days:

One man’s attempt to solve 50 problems in 50 days using only great design. Some good startup ideas in here…

How to Do Philosophy:

If you’ve ever suspected that most classical philosophy is a colossal waste of time, Paul Graham tells you why you’re probably right.

TIME: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us:

Stephen Brill follows the money to uncover the pinnacle of corruption that is the U.S. Health Care system. A must-read article if there ever was one.

DIY Dot Org:

A beautifully designed site full of fun and challenging DIY projects. I could spend months on here.

The Steve Jobs Video Archive:

A collection of over 250 Steve Jobs videos in biographical order

Self-portraits from an artist under the influence of 48 different psychoactive drug combos.

Water Wigs are pretty amazing.

David Pogue proposes to his girlfriend by creating a fake movie trailer about them and then getting a theater to play it before a real movie. Beautiful and totally awesome.