Infoworld is on a visionary kick. They have peered into the future and they see on demand, hosted services as being a dominant form of IT delivery happening over the next 3-4 years. These hosted services will presumably replace many ERP and the remanants of in-house application software. This by the way is diametrically opposed to the Information Week “vision” which uses WalMart as champion of steady-as-she-goes, in-house development.

Contributing his part to this in-demand, hosted vision of the world, Jon Udell raises a critical condition for success of this vision – On demand apps demand a richer browser. Here is a bit of what Jon has to say:
“Now, as the on-demand trend heats up and the pendulum swings back toward the GUI — in the form of RIAs (rich Internet applications) — it’s vital to understand the strengths and weaknesses of Web-style software, and to assess its real potential. Macromedia, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems don’t exactly welcome that analysis. Each owns a client platform — Flash, Windows/.Net, Java — through which it hopes to control the delivery of software as a service. But nobody owns or can own the ascendant browser, Mozilla’s Firefox. ActiveX dependencies and inertia rule it out as an immediate substitute for Internet Explorer, especially in many corporate settings. But Firefox will gradually pry open the door. Now that there’s a viable open source alternative to Internet Explorer, enterprises burned by vendor lock-in would be ill-advised to ditch the browser for a proprietary client technology. And of course, they won’t. The question is, How does one selectively and strategically enrich the browser?

Jon goes on to raise some fundamental browser questions – better support for rich graphics(HTML Forms may get an update, SVG and SMIL are still nogos), progress in plugins and extensions (the new Firefox does a great job here) and the tough job of managing transactional complexity without incurring the high cost of network refreshes (also offline operation is implied but not stated here).

Steward of the Browser

So lets look at how the steward of the browser, Microsoft, has dealt with some of these issues. Microsoft is steward of the browser interface by virtue of their 90%++ market share for browsers worldwide since the year 2000 and their dominance of all things on the PC desktop. Here is what Microsoft has done for the browser interface in the last 4-5 years:
1)Java applets – Microsoft has poisoned the well by foisting on users an obsolete version of the JVM in IE until at least 2007 while trying to market a proprietary version of Java – J++;
2)plugins- Redmond nearly got away with a Draconian “solution” to the EOLAS patent that would have severly changed and restricted calls to objects, Java Applets and use of the Flash plugin;
3)DOM, CSS, JavaScript standards – Microsoft has absolutey stonewalled on all improvements and even meeting its prior committments to implement base standards in IE;
4)graphics improvements – Redmond has nixed SVG, SMIL, JPEG2000, PNG, XForms and other graphic improvements in IE;
5)JavaScript improvements to help manage transactional complexity – hasnt happened on Microsofts watch except for proprietary JScript and .NET “extensions”;
6)Implementation of Stick to Standards toggle – Redmond steadfastly ignores all requests to have a Stick to Standards toggle which when switched on would have Microsoft tools emit only W3C, ECMA, WS-I, OASIS, IETF, and other standards compliant Internet/Web Services code;
7)Security framework improvements to IE – nada but maybe with Sun on early Dec. webcast;
8)Functional improvements to IE since 2001 – None;
9)Planned improvements to IE upto 2007 – None;
10)Telling users what to expect in Longhorn IE – Mums the word.
Does this look like a top ten list for keeping Microsoft as steward of the browser interface for another two or three years?

Now some analysts will be generous and describe Microsofts support for the browser as “steady” or get racy and suggest “ambivalent”. Let me be unambiguous – Microsoft is openly hostile to the browser and Web interface. The browser world needs a new steward – open and standards adherent.

So, Grand Central Communications and other hosted app vendors you better make sure your apps not only run faultlessly in Mozilla, Opera and the standards based browsers; but also check that you dont have any proprietary Microsoft ActiveX and other browser dependencies. Ditto for ISVs in general. And IT shops – its fairly obvious, convert now at relatively low cost to open, standards based browsers or be faced with monumental conversion costs when Longhorn IE finally emerges – there is a reason for “mums the word” -read what one of Microsofts lead developers, John Montgomery, has to offer as guidance on what the future “web” interface holds – hint, its proprietary.

In sum, the IT community has a clear and fairly simple way of getting a measure of independence from Microsoft dominace of the desktop and Web experience, switch from the IE to any of the standards compliant browsers sooner rather than later – I recommend Firefox. Then, Jon, by gosh you will get a better browser and as quickly as users switch.