How Microsoft Can Compete with Firefox

by Marc Hedlund

I was interested to see Microsoft announce the upcoming release of Internet Explorer 7 this week. I think they're doomed (not the company, but the release/product). "Now with some security!" isn't a great sales pitch.

Death of Microsoft predicted, film at eleven.

But wait, there's hope for them yet. I know a way Microsoft could make IE7 an interesting, vibrant, active platform for development, taking back the lead the Firefox team has stolen from them (not in gross installations, yet, but certainly in momentum, press, mind share, and viability).

Here's my idea: Microsoft, you should make IE7 support the Firefox extensions and themes. Then, you should (forgive the redundancy) extend the extension format to support other Microsoft products -- on Windows only, naturally.

In my view, the Firefox browser has taken off for three primary reasons:

  1. The development team got it close enough to the IE interface that switching became nearly painless.

  2. The browser allows better control over web junk like pop-ups, and the Firefox team has marketed user control and security very well.

  3. The extension mechanism in the browser makes it very easy to write great extensions, and development of those extensions has exploded.

Microsoft can't copy the first of these without copying itself, obviously. It can try to backfill on security and user control, but then it's just we-said, they-said as to who is really more secure. The really new and interesting features going into Firefox are going in through extensions -- but the UI to get them isn't that great yet. If IE7 comes out supporting that body of code, and provides a better UI to get at it, all the benefits of those features will accrue to IE as well as Firefox. Wouldn't it be great if every contribution to Firefox was also a contribution to IE?

To state it in the inverse -- unless Microsoft adopts an extension mechanism or creates a more successful mechanism of its own, I can't see them getting back momentum for this product. They stopped development of the browser after IE6 for a reason: their work was done. The question is now, who else can they get to work on the product for them?

Microsoft needs to open up the browser -- not the source code, but APIs to make the browser sing. I think the best way would be by embracing the format already emerging, and doing something to make it more useful on Windows.

See, open source isn't so scary after all. You just have to learn how to use it.


2005-02-18 04:53:19
Have any idea how those extensions are coded?
Using XPCOM and XUL; There's no way Microsoft will ever support these, since they are the direct competitor to what they see as the future Microsoft-only web platform: XAML and Avalon.
2005-02-18 08:34:33
Have any idea how those extensions are coded?
I agree that what I'm proposing is very unlikely; that's why I wrote about it. But the point, from Microsoft's vantage, is not to stick with XAML and Avalon -- the point is to be competitive. I'm suggesting another approach to competition with Firefox (well -- really I'm suggesting the standard Microsoft approach to competition, embrace and extend, with a twist).

Microsoft is digging in its heels against open source as the enemy. My point is that they would be smarter to co-opt the open source community.

Every time I make a post like this, I get the same comments: "But they already put out a press release saying that *wouldn't* do what you suggested." "But their developers have been working on something else for the past two years." Whatever. Responses like that are victims of the sunk-cost fallacy. That money is already spent and gone; how can they act, today, to best further their interests? I think it's worth considering, both for Microsoft and for companies and projects affected by Microsoft's actions.

2005-02-18 08:41:36
A friend writes in email...
"Nice post about IE. But MSIE does have an extension mechanism; browswer helper objects. It's what the toolbars use. It's what all the spyware uses. It's quite powerful and effective, you can do a lot of neat things with it.

"The problem is that the culture of MSIE has never encouraged lots of little add-ons."

Sure, good point. I think Firefox encourages that culture by making the extensions so easy to write, as well as by making the community feel that it is their browser, and not some company's, that they are improving with their work. I was mistaken to write, "unless Microsoft adopts an extension mechanism or creates a more successful mechanism of its own" -- taking your point, what I'm suggesting that they need a way to harness the creative power of the Firefox community to their own advantage, or else it will overwhelm them.

2005-02-18 15:16:39
Doesn't MS have > 90% of the browser market?
And the OS market?
Why would MS ask how they can compete with FF?
2005-02-18 17:12:20
Why did they announce IE7 after such a long delay?

You might be right, maybe they don't care about Firefox as a competitor to IE. I would, though, if I were at Microsoft.

2005-02-19 18:30:01
Stats on this page indicate MS currently has < 70% of the browser market:

2005-02-20 11:22:39
Rooting for Goliath
Why are you rooting for Goliath?

When you yourself plainly stated that they stopped working because their "work was done".

In what respect? Getting market share? Plugging all IE's security holes because of the flawed architectural decision of embedding the browser into the OS in a thinkly veiled attempt to further the monopoly?
Or are they done because IE is fully compliant with all W3C standards?

And getting back "market share that the Firefox team has stolen?" Your choice of words are disingenuous.

I am still puzzled by people who continue to cheer for a company who clearly does not have the best interest of users at heart.

If Microsoft sold cars....

2005-02-20 16:49:34
Rooting for Goliath
I'm not rooting for anything but the best software. Right now, the best software is Firefox, and that's what I use. The "stolen" and "done" references were deliberately written from Microsoft's perspective, not based on any real knowledge but on my inferences from their actions (not releasing a new IE for years and then suddenly announcing a new one so soon after Firefox's very successful 1.0 release).

I don't hate Microsoft and I'm not rooting for them, either. I want competition since I think it spurs on both sides, and in fact that's just what I think has happened here.

(By the way, I'm sure someone from Microsoft could read my post and come to the opposite conclusion you did. "Why should we give so much credence to Firefox when we own this market? You're overvaluing their progress -- you must be biased.")

2005-02-21 07:47:37
A friend writes in email...
Noone outside MSFT has any say in the direction the browser will take. Contrast with the Mozilla Foundation. It's never going to be even close.

Not that I think it matters, because IE didn't lose the battle because of the extension mechanism of Firefox. The Mozilla Suite browser has always been just as extensible yet it was never as successful. Most users don't twiddle any knobs on their software; they don't care about tweaking. How many car owners tune their shock absorbers? Tweaking tools might be important to geeks (be they computer or car geeks), but noone else cares much.

The success of Firefox is due to the fact that ordinary people can go from downloading it to using it within a few minutes without having to learn adjust any of their learned reflexes. They will be exposed to minor differences in time, but the exposure doesn't get in the way of their getting things done. And as soon as they install and start it, they're already reaping benefits (much fewer popups, much less fear of malware).

Firefox is popular because people don't have to like it or even know they're using it to benefit from it.

2005-02-21 11:10:02
A friend writes in email...
Noone outside MSFT has any say in the direction the browser will take.

Well, the controls are just a lot clunkier. The way someone outside Microsoft can have a say in the browser's direction is to stop using it.

The success of Firefox is due to the fact that ordinary people can go from downloading it to using it within a few minutes without having to learn adjust any of their learned reflexes [...] And as soon as they install and start it, they're already reaping benefits (much fewer popups, much less fear of malware)

I agree (my points #1 and #2, above extensions, in the post), that is why Firefox has taken off. But what happens if Microsoft takes exactly the same approach to popups and security as Firefox, and markets that approach with national TV ads? What's Firefox's advantage then?

My argument is that over time the functionality of Firefox will grow faster than IE, not becuase of an open source code base necessarily, but because of a community of developers actively working to make the browser better and better, both inside the Mozilla team, and outside of it through extensions. I think this is the strongest asset Firefox has. Microsoft can compete on base browser features, but they can't just force a developer community to appear. Hence my "plug-compatibility" idea with extensions.

2005-02-22 07:03:22
If you can't beat them....join them
OK, here is a radical idea and if MS ever did it, things would be shaken up.

1. MS could dump the IE code and join the FF project. They could write extensions for FF that make it do all the things that IE does and so on.

2. MS Linux. What would happen if MS put out their own distribution of Linux? Of course MS Office and other apps "for Linux" would be put out as well but guess what? They'd only work properly on MS-Linux!

2005-02-22 07:59:50
Rooting for Goliath
"Competing" with MS?!?

"Traditional" companies cannot compete with the acknowledged monopoly, that's why a lot of MS "competitors" have jumped on the Linux bandwagon as a loss-leader in an effort to commoditize the OS, giving MS a dose of their own medicine.

Hhhmmm... I wonder what will happen to Popular Power if MS decides to bundle their own P2P Distributed Computing Platform into Windows? Do you think you can compete with MS?

But then again, being "bought out" is a good exit strategy....

2005-03-07 04:03:57
Rooting for Goliath
Windows Cluster edition will have distributed computing support. See for details.

Paragraph 12 reads:

"That version also will be able to manage "cycle harvesting" jobs that put otherwise-idle PCs to productive use, he said. Cycle harvesting--best exemplified by the SETI@Home project to scour radio telescope signals for extraterrestrial communication--only is useful for about 10 percent of high-performance technical computing tasks, he added."

The last paragraph reads (highlighting mine):

"Even Microsoft's Excel can benefit, he said, noting that some businesses have worksheets that can take hours to calculate. Today, such work requires third-party add-ons such as software from Platform Computing. However, Theimer said that Microsoft may be interested in offering that capability itself. "Microsoft is also looking at this," Theimer said."