Browser wars deemed hot again

Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and Google debate issues of browser innovation, interoperability, and security

The browser wars are back. Dignitaries from major browser makers -- including Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and newcomer Google -- served on a panel Thursday evening that discussed the apparent re-emergence of competition in the browser space after several years of dormancy.

(Apple, which offers the Safari browser, declined an invitation to participate, said Steve Wildstrom, moderator for the Churchill Club event in Palo Alto, California, and a columnist at BusinessWeek.)

While it appeared Microsoft's Internet Explorer had won the browser battle five years ago, things have changed with the advent of mobile browsers, Firefox and Safari, Wildstrom said. Panelists tackled questions such as balancing the need to innovate with the need to be compatible, as well as pondering security issues.

"I think we're nowhere close to done in terms of innovation in the browser," said Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for Internet Explorer at Microsoft. But challenges include handling innovation, interoperability, and security, he said.

"There's a broad set of things that people expect to just work," Hachamovitch said. Microsoft also has had to face the reality that it must ship a browser even while standards are still under construction.

"We're pretty sensitive to the needs of application developers," said Mozilla Vice President of Engineering Mike Shaver, citing enhancements for Firefox such as TraceMonkey, to boost JavaScript performance.

Google recently entered the browser fray with Chrome. "One thing that we ... were very specific about [with Chrome was]  that while we wanted to add more choice for users, we [did not want to] add another platform for developers," said Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management at Google. Chrome features the WebKit open source browser engine also used in Safari, so Web site builders do not have to worry about accommodating another unfamiliar engine, he said.

Google's entry into the browser space arose from its building of applications and becoming concerned about the state of the browser platform, Pichai said.

Each of the panelists cited what they believed to be the uniqueness of their browser.

"Our claim to fame is that we're able to make a Web browser to run on anything," said Christen Krogh, chief development officer for Opera.

Chrome, Pichai said, offers a simple UI and speed. Internet Explorer, Hachamovitch said, at its core is focused on how real people use the Web.

"We try to deliver the right experience for a really broad spectrum of customers," such as consumers and developers, Hachamovitch said.

Mozilla's Firefox is a powerful tool for making sure the Web continues to be open, Shaver said. The Mozilla organization, meanwhile, is chartered not to make money and also serves as a differentiator. "We're chartered to protect the Internet and how people connect to it," Shaver said.

Hachamovitch said a test suite is being developed for Cascading Style Sheets 2.1. CSS provides for formatting of Web pages. "A test suite is a crucial thing," he said.

In the security space, the upcoming Internet Explorer 8 browser offers a facility to protect from cross-site scripting attacks. "People's expectations for the browser are just going up and up and up," Hachamovitch said.

Pichai noted the impending release of Chrome for the Macintosh. "We're definitely working very hard on a Mac version," he said.

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