This was a big week in browser news: Google launched Chrome 64 and Mozilla released Firefox 58 in the span of just over a day. But the timing isn’t what’s interesting (both browsers get new versions every six weeks or so) — except for the fact it coincided with Mosaic’s 25-year anniversary — it’s the significant additions and improvements that point to a bigger trend. The browsers wars are heating up again.
I pay close attention to browser updates. It’s a bit of an obsession of mine, but I do justify it, to anyone who will listen, by saying that browsers don’t get enough coverage relative to how much time we spend in them.
2018 will be about ads and performance
2018 is already looking like it will be much more eventful than the past few years. This is largely thanks to Google — unlike Microsoft, the company is not taking its lead in the browser market for granted. Google is doubling down on the user experience by focusing on ads and performance, an opportunity I’ve argued its competitors have completely missed.
Chrome got a stronger pop-up blocker this month, but that’s nothing compared to what has already been announced for 2018. Google’s browser will soon no longer autoplay content with sound, take on third-party software injections, and crack down on unwanted redirects. Oh, and a built-in ad blocker is coming next month.
And that’s just what Google has talked about publicly. There’s undoubtedly plenty in the pipeline that’s slated for release this year.
Meanwhile, Mozilla has released a major revamp of Firefox, dubbed Firefox Quantum. That was version 57, we’re already on 58, and there’s a lot more where that came from. The speed improvements are massive, and coupled with Tracking Protection, they blow Chrome out of the water.
Mozilla is finally back in business. I’m not at all saying Firefox will, or even can, unseat Chrome, but it’s finally worth taking into account again.
Apple and Microsoft are still big players in the browser space, but they continue to move very slowly. Nevertheless, Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention push in Safari is worth … tracking, and Microsoft’s Continue on PC efforts show plenty of promise.
Mobile and beyond
I could be completely wrong that 2018 will be a pivotal year in the browser wars, and there’s nothing that gives me more pause than the state of mobile browsers. Because of the Android-iOS duopoly, there simply isn’t anywhere near as much innovation on phones and tablets as there could be. Add to that Apple’s requirement that all iOS browsers use WebKit/WKWebView and the general domination of Blink/Chromium on Android, and you’re left with a boring browser battle.
Former president of Microsoft’s Windows Division Steven Sinofsky put it best:
Yes, it’s great that Chrome’s aforementioned stronger pop-up blocker arrived not just on Windows, Mac, and Linux this week, but on Android as well. (The iOS version is often behind, so we’ll see where it lands in a few months.)
And yes, Mozilla should receive buckets of praise for its mobile endeavors given it’s the only one without an operating system of any kind. Firefox Focus is a brilliant offering on Android and iOS, to the point where I wonder if Firefox for Android and Firefox for iOS are worth the separate efforts.
But everything else I mentioned above is largely about the PC. And while that’s great for people like me who spend hours at a desktop and laptop all day, it’s simply no longer where the biggest impact lies.
Users want powerful extensions on mobile, for a start. Mozilla beat Google to the punch here, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Users also want better communication between their computers and phones. Apple and Microsoft have a distinct advantage here, but neither are really blowing the rest out of the water.
And of course, users could always use significant speed improvements on mobile, where loading times can be particularly abysmal and where there are many more factors that can make an impact. Hopefully we don’t need to wait for 5G to move the needle.
If the browser wars keep heating up this year, they’ll hopefully trickle down to mobile soon enough. Extensions, syncing, and speed are all areas that deserve attention.
This browser geek can’t wait.
ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.