So it's always amusing to me when the mainstream press tries to cover tech products, but I was particularly interested in this one since I'm in the middle of writing my own Firefox 3 review. I think that terms like "innovative" are thrown around too casually these days, and while I realize the competitive advantages inherent in using terms like that, let's be honest here: Firefox 3 is excellent, but it's not innovative at all, it's just an evolution of what browsers have always been. And that's fine, I guess. One thing this guy does get right, however, is that the browser is increasingly important because it's the gateway through which we do and will in the future experience cloud computing:

The browser, that porthole onto the broad horizon of the Web, is about to get some fancy new window dressing ... With tasks like e-mail and word processing now migrating from the PC to the Internet, analysts and industry players think the browser will soon become even more valuable and strategically important.

"The typical [Web] browser doesn't look all that different than it did 10 years ago," said Larry Cheng, a partner at Fidelity Ventures, one of the firms that invested in Flock, a browser start-up. "That is an unsustainable trend that is the launching point for the second browser war, which will not be won by monopolistic muscle but by innovation."

Exactly. Early versions of Firefox were, of course, somewhat innovative, popularizing features that IE later copied, like tabbed browsing and pop-up blockers. But Firefox has been on a steady evolutionary, not innovative, trend since then. That's fine, but let's be honest about that. (Peruse this list of "top ten" new features in FF3 to see what I mean: It's chock full of evolutionary improvements, but there's no true innovation there.)

That notion [that "the only thing people will need on a computer is a browser"] has helped to rekindle the browser wars and has resulted in the latest wave of innovation. Firefox 3.0, for example, runs more than twice as fast as the previous version while using less memory, Mozilla says.

The browser is also smarter and maintains three months of a user’s browsing history to try to predict what site he or she may want to visit. Typing the word “football” into the browser, for example, quickly generates a list of all the sites visited with “football” in the name or description.

That's all evolutionary, not innovative. Newer versions of software applications should be more efficient than their less sophisticated predecessors. But this one is curious:

Firefox has named this new tool the “awesome bar” and says it could replace the need for people to maintain long and messy lists of bookmarks. It will also personalize the browser for an individual user.

“Sitting at somebody else’s computer and using their browser is going to become a very awkward experience,” said Mitchell Baker, chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation.

Just so I understand this quote, Mitchell Baker, the chairwoman of Mozilla, is claiming that one of the major new features in Firefox 3... will make the browser less easy to use if multiple people use it?

BTW ... the "awesome" bar is not only a horrible name, I think it somewhat undermines the otherwise mature nature of this product.

Anyway. I would also point out that the few end-user-oriented features in IE 8 that we've been shown so far--Web Slices and Activities--are arguably far more innovative than anything in Firefox 3, because they dramatically change the behavior and functionality of the browser. Whether these features are successful, or useful, or necessary, well that remains to be seen.

OK.

Just so we're clear. I use Firefox 3 and will continue to do so. I recommend that you use Firefox 3 as well. But I think we're reaching the point where this traditional type of browser has pretty much run its course. I'm not sure, exactly, what the next step is, but I guess I'd categorize it as better integration with the Web-based services (i.e. cloud computing services) that we use now and will use in the future. Since Firefox (and IE and, to a much lesser extent, Safari and Opera) is the portal we use to access this functionality, these products should do two things:

  1. Integrate more seamlessly with the underlying operating system in order to blur the line between the local operating environment and the Web services that are exposed by the application. Firefox 3 makes a reasonable step in this direction, and though I'm personally disappointed they didn't go as far as originally promised, it looks like they'll get there in FF4.
  2. Integrate more seamlessly with the Web services that are exposed by the application. Create hooks to Gmail, Google Calendar, etc. so that these services can appear like native applications on the local PC (or at least provide a better infrastructure for these hooks). Mozilla, too, is working on this with the Prism project and of course offline technologies like Google Gears complete the picture.

Microsoft, however, is in a unique position here because they play in all three levels of the Software + Services ecosystem on the traditional PC. They make the OS (Windows), the browser (IE) and other local applications (Windows Mail, Windows Calendar, etc.), and the Web services (Hotmail, Windows Live Calendar, etc.) and can thus more seamlessly integrate all of this stuff together. Assuming they do it right. Which they haven't, yet. But they may get there. (Apple comes pretty close to this vision, too: They make the OS--Leopard--the browser--Safari--and the other local apps--iCat, Mail.app. But they come up short on the Web services side, and would have to partner with Google, Yahoo!, and similar companies to deliver anything as good as what Microsoft can do alone.

But of course, computing in the future will increasingly happen on not-traditional devices like the smart phone. Both Microsoft and Apple have OS-related mobility products that complete the picture in an anywhere/anytime access sense. This, curiously, is an area where Mozilla has lagged. And arguably, Mozilla's inability to come up with anything compelling in the mobile space--heck, even Opera is a major player in that market right now--means they might simply get locked out of what becomes the volume cloud computing platform of the future. This should be hugely troubling for Mozilla and its advocates. The window is closing.

I'll leave you with a related and somewhat disturbing thought:

I've been very critical of Microsoft's decision to bundle IE into Windows. They way they did it was wrong. When they did it was wrong: Back in the mid-1990's, IE was such an immature technology that letting it get its tendrils into Windows/NT was just a bad decision; it resulted in years of security vulnerabilities that have dogged hundreds of millions of Windows users.

But think about it. If you accept that the browser will become the portal to accessing the Web services of the future, doesn't it actually make sense from a marketing/usage/productisation standpoint to make the browser the core interface of both the OS (Windows) and the Web? If you're serious about making Windows the absolute best way to experience cloud computing, this is actually the right thing to do. Conceptually.

Yikes.

What's amazing about all this is that Microsoft stumbled into it by accident. When the decision was made to bundle IE in Windows, it was done to shore up the Windows monopoly, plain and simple. That this decision might be proven to be the correct one, for completely different reasons, a decade and a half later, is pretty scary.