March 8, 2006

Firefox v. IE: an AOL View, pt 3

[continued... read part 2 first]

b) Firefox is more standards compliant

Unfortunately, I think this is largely (though not entirely) a non-factor for two reasons:
(1) Our priority is to our customers and consumers first, the industry second. Making things easier for developers ranks below making them WORK for our members. Remember that all of our efforts succeed only on the backs of their clicks.
(2) Compatibility is FAR more important than compliance.

Oh wait, that’s the same point.

Forunately, Microsoft is doing a lot to
improve IE’s compliance in this regard, though they are (somewhat) limited by the higher goal of broad compatibility. And there's part of the benefit for AOL - let the OS take care of the guts - we'll do the application. If we did a Mac version of AOL Explorer, we'd use WebKit (which powers Apple's Safari browser).

Its not clear what "standards" means from a consumer context - I'd argue it means "compatibility".

c) Firefox provides a better experience/is more powerful
Note that I did NOT say that Firefox is
faster or leaner or faster or leaner. It is faster at some stuff, but IE performs better at others. Over time, though, I do expect the balance to tip more in favor of Firefox, if Microsoft can't stop the slide of developers in particular - there will be a natural tendency to optimize for the platform on which you are developing...

...But I digress...

If we’re not talking about security, standards, or speed, we’re no longer talking about the browsing ENGINE - we’re now discussing the browser as a PRODUCT, when we say "better experience/more powerful".

I mean, if you were REALLY serious about
security, standards, or speed in your browsing engine - why, you’d be advocating Opera. I know I did.

Its free.
And cross-platform.
And light-weight.

And more secure than Firefox
(i.e. there are degrees of security: its not a black and white issue)

Unfortunately, the code's not available (we asked :)), and there are other issues, as well - but if these are the things that move you, YOU should
go get it!

But in terms of IE vs. Firefox, that leaves me with...

d) Firefox is cooler
Indubitably. No arguments there. Heck, its practically a
religion - though that comes with its own baggage. And there is a wonderful and valid romanticism to its story.

But we’re AOL - the moment
we touch it, its not really that cool, is it? We have to compete on features and the product itself.

Now, Firefox DOES has some very nice features, both novel (new) and those appropriated from competitors/predecessors (enhancements), much like any good product.

And perusing the FEATURED feature list from their
- A Better Web Experience
- Faster Browsing
- Automatic Updates
- Tabbed Browsing
- Improved Pop-up Blocking
- Integrated Search
- Stronger Security
- Clear Private Data
- Live Bookmarks
- etc.

Additionally, the Mozilla Foundation has done a
fantastic job with the developer community and extensions, generally, and I hope that we have the scale to entice developers at that level.

But that aside... Hmm... that list could be the marketing pitch for
pretty much every browser EXCEPT Internet Explorer...

Oh wait,
never mind. [IE 7 link]

It'd be nice if there were
even more relevant features you could provide, if you had a nice browser whose destiny and experience you controlled - value you could deliver to you customers, and recirculation you could generate within your network of services...

Oh wait,
never mind. [AOL Explorer 1.5 beta link]

OK, I'm being a little facile - but whatever you think of our desire to do our own browser, and whatever you may think of its feature set, that has little bearing on our choice of underlying browsing technology.

Yes, Firefox has some really good product features. I think we've done OK in that regard, too.

So... Punchline:
What I'm getting to is this: when I measure on any axis that I think really matters to end users (other than the "chase the buzz" one... :P), choice of browsing engine is not nearly as important (as always, IMHO) as the features and benefits
the product itself delivers - as opposed to the display technology.

[It DOES however, matter to developers - though one could argue a one browser world would be nice for developers; perhaps its just a debate of WHICH browser it should be? :P]

Firefox's browser engine, though more robust, is also still young. As it stabilizes (development-wise) and matures a bit (on top of XULRunner for example) we'll be watching. And if, over time, the fundamentals of browsing ENGINES changes meaningfully, then perhaps we'll revisit and revise our choice here. Fortunately, our platform work makes even an engine switch (relatively) straightforward - AOL Explorer really is a browser "skin" more than a "browser" in the usual sense...

For now, though, compatibility (and alignment with the OS) trumps the other percieved benefits. And that really is a big deal.

Compatibility is pretty much the biggest reason I (personally) kept giving up on Opera, back in the day - not enough sites worked. Firefox has done a better job at both evangelism and balancing the tradeoffs, and more and more, with Safari on the Mac and Firefox everywhere else ... well, we'll see. I wish them well.

Microsoft has made a (pretty good) business and priority of delivering robust APIs and services - and betting against them on technology infrastructure just doesn't seem to have a compelling business case behind it - for the company, or (more importantly) for our users (for example, its nice that they don't have to "import" favorites - their favorites are just their favorites). And whatever the reason, Microsoft is really working hard to make IE 7 a lot better for web developers.

[ALTHOUGH, there is a bit of karma that those of you who both hate Microsoft (and maybe AOL) but love Firefox (I know: what an ODD overlap!) will find appropriate. It's currently at play in our relationship with them with regards to the development of IE 7 features -I'll share that in a future post, at some point, as I've rambled on waaaay too long already.]

All that said (and all snarkiness aside), I should
reiterate that I really do believe that Firefox is a fine product that fully deserves the accolades it has received. It is genuinely good for the industry and end users alike to have it continue to have it do well in the marketplace.

I just don't think its browsing engine makes sense for
AOL Explorer.


Roopa said...

"evangelism of firefox", as you rightly said is one of the key components for its preference. IE is a better bet for the AOL browser, and maybe lots of AOL IE extensions for firefox like so may help. Your post makes so much sense, I'm almost a convert :)

Rafael Ebron said...

I'm a little disappointed. I was hoping for, we chose IE because it allowed us to do x, y, and z and Mozilla didn't allow us to do that.

We know compatibility is an issue, not so much in the US, but if you've bought a $2,000 iMac and can't access a site that's IE only, that kinda sucks. It's actually going the other way as well where some sites are optimized for Firefox/Safari/Opera because IE just doesn't have the underlying functionality.

If you build an AOL browser on top of Firefox with all that it can do, and *you* and the technical team came up with the features/exensions, not everyone in biz dev, not everyone in programming, not everyone in sales (not implying don't make money), it would be a very, very cool browser.

Throw down some cool AOL extensions for Firefox (e.g. not the AOL toolbar) and see what happens. Won't hurt much and can be done on the cheap. Get juberti in a room for 30 minutes. I don't think anyone's even come close to what could be possible with IM in a browser/web experience.

Also, I'd love to see a counter technical argument as to why you would build a browser on top of Firefox and what the advantages there would be. valeski? Someone else?

Sree Kotay said...

Roopa: Thanks :)

You should check out the 1.5 beta - we might win you over yet (though I recommend you turn off start-up tabs in preferences for perf reasons; that'll get fixed).

You're right though, we need to work on our extension program - that's coming in a big way.

Sree Kotay said...

rafael: I appreciate the comments and passion :)

I was a little verbose in my ramblings, but I think you're kind of making MY point - I'm not sure that Firefox as a browsing engine lets us do much that IE doesn't. And it adds 4MB of download, comparable perf, and less compatibility?

As a product - yeah, Firefox is nice, but I believe AOL needs its own browser (different set of arguments as I said). We make an IE toolbar, and a Firefox toolbar. Wherever there are users, we'd like to have software and services.

As a developer, I kinda hope you kick some butt (and you are!), but I'm not sure, as I said, that its really a pain (the transition and butt-kicking) that I'd pass on to my customers.

fwiw, not everyone even in AOL agrees.

Rafael Ebron said...

I appreciate your passion too and for posting your thoughts, good stuff.

It's clear we disagree on some things and that's fine. Just noticed AOL Explorer 1.5 beta and checking it out today, too.

I want to see AOL turn it around this year and it looks like you guys are moving in the right direction.

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