But users have been anticipating major new releases for both brands in time for Vista. IE7, which entered beta in July of last year, struck first, surprising many with a bold and distinct new approach to arranging functionality. The new Microsoft browser would be as different from IE6 as Nissan's 350Z is from the 300ZX.
Under the hood, IE was set to change as well, with Microsoft forced to base its new engine upon a different intellectual property base than the ages-old Spyglass Mosaic code. So among those who chose Firefox as a more functional, secure, and adaptable alternative to IE6 in Windows, Microsoft may have helped raise expectations that the Mozilla Organization could deliver something similarly as sweeping.
Whatever Firefox 2.0 is, it isn't "sweeping," and nowhere does that fact become more evident than in a Windows Vista test environment. If you ask Mozilla -- and we have -- FF2's principal changes from version 1.5 are these: 1) a cleaned up, well-tweaked user environment; 2) a new integrated spell checker; 3) cleaner handling of RSS feeds, which is one of Firefox' hallmarks; 4) a Session Restore feature, which brings the browser back to the point where it last left off, especially after a crash; and 5) a tab bar that no longer gets cluttered. Firefox first delivered the tab bar, and it's taken IE this long to finally, officially respond.
One little secret about Firefox, though, whose relative dirtiness may only be appreciated by enthusiasts, is that a well-used version of Firefox is by definition a well-customized one. Thus a great many things about that well-tweaked user environment, such as the relative positioning of the "Back" button with respect to the "Forward" button (a serious point of contention among FF2 beta testers), will actually be covered over by the user's choice of theme.
Also, for well over a year, we've had the ability through Firefox add-ons to clean up the tab bar, and endow each tab with its own close box. The on-tab close box is a new feature of FF2, but for many Firefox users, it isn't a new feature. Session restore capability has also been available as a Firefox add-on for well over a year.
This is supposed to be one of the good things about community-supported software. But Firefox's official annexing of these features may remind some of the "feature assimilation" tactics that has previously characterized Microsoft, and that may have made it a contender in Web browsing to begin with. Although, that would be an unfair characterization, since Mozilla apparently has no commercial motivation.
But with three of Mozilla's major innovations for FF2 having been knocked down, only two star items remain: First, XML pages containing RSS feeds now show up as typeset pages in FF2 rather than as XML source code. This was a must-have feature that first appeared in the earliest IE7 beta last year, and Mozilla could not be seen as behind the times in innovating RSS handling, which has historically been one of Firefox' key advantages.
Second is the spell checker, which may indeed come in handy in situations where the browser serves as the front-end provider for distributed applications, which is certainly the case in more and more enterprises.
When you put FF2 and IE7 together side-by-side, though, at least today, it's the latter browser that commands the most attention. Microsoft's is the browser with the most to lose, especially with its gamble on a completely renovated usage model. But Firefox's safe bet, by comparison, has garnered some less than flattering results, including one from my friend and colleague, Angela Gunn, who this morning in her USA Today blog called F2 "the most disappointing browser upgrade ever," promising more comments soon.
Microsoft Windows users are more acclimated to the realm of commercial marketing, which means that browsers, like brands of detergent and sports cars, eventually become overdue for overhauls, just before they get "refreshed" with a new image and logo. These users' habits are more like consumers - they expect change even when and where change isn't absolutely necessary, almost as though commercial products had "term limits" imposed upon them.
Some months ago, I was speaking with a hardware analyst on the subject of Intel's massive Core 2 Duo upgrades, and how deeply they'd put a dent in AMD's CPU plans. It has always been Intel's growth pattern, he said, to develop new product lines in giant fits and starts. Each one is massively more functional and important than the previous one, though it takes years for Intel to reach the next stage.
Meanwhile, he said, AMD grows incrementally, perfecting its fabrication process along the way, sometimes in baby steps, often in ways that aren't always readily perceptible by the consumer.
Microsoft and Mozilla could fit that same model. It's genuinely worth asking whether Firefox 2.0 should have been called 1.6. Its more intuitively organized Tools | Options dialog box is a welcome improvement, but all of its improvements are along those same lines.
Meanwhile, Microsoft's IE7 is a very different beast, now adopting Firefox-style "add-ons," though its list of available items at present is somewhat scant. (In the RSS Feeds category, you'll find NewzCrawler, which -- while it's a good product -- is a stand-alone program, not an add-on.)
The inspiration behind Microsoft's complete rethinking of the browser controls is sensible enough. In retrospect, I've realized that the menu bar is easily the single least used feature of my current browser, so IE7's elimination of that feature could be a welcome act. What replaces it, however, should be as organic and intuitive to the act of using the Web as Common User Access originally intended the menu bar to be for all manners of programs.
So far, I don't see the organic nature, the logical flow, behind Microsoft's choice of control locations. The little star on the far left doesn't mean "recorded URLs" (favorites) to me; and things like tucking the "New Window" menu command inside a toolbar button marked "Page," seems spurious and last-minute, as though a designer just realized this had to go somewhere.
It's these little facts that I realize the moment I return to my ordinary, seemingly unchanged Firefox environment, even in 2.0. It's a little more well-worn and comfortable, and that comfort is a critical part of organic use. It helps substantiate Mozilla's case -- were it to decide to make this case -- that maintaining a consistent look and feel is essential to ease of use.
With browsers becoming the inline handlers of multiple orders and classes of media, rather than just embellished HTML and XML, they are fast becoming the bookshelves and entertainment cabinets of our digital realms. As such, they start to cease to be exciting in and of themselves.
Perhaps this is for the better, unless you happen to be a company whose commercial livelihood is dependent on your browser's name recognition and commercial success. Thankfully, unless your name is "Opera," this is unlikely, because neither Microsoft nor Mozilla find themselves in that position.
But in the short term, at least, Mozilla may find itself with a serious problem: Part of the key to its relative popularity, at least among its user base, is the feeling it gives them of having advantages in performance, functionality and security. If Microsoft is generally perceived to have narrowed or erased that gap, the resulting lull in the usual buzz surrounding Firefox could effectively squelch that organization's principal means of advertising.
While Microsoft does have a lot to lose in terms of usage share, it has little or nothing to lose as a company. If IE7 were to fail in the public mind, it wouldn't be the first version of IE to do so, and yet here's Microsoft still standing.
Mozilla's current code-name for its alpha versions of Firefox 3.0 is "Minefield." The organization may need to start exploring a new path down that minefield pretty soon.
Scott M. Fulton, III