Caught in the crossfire of the new browser wars

Analysis: The new interface for Firefox, the battle over Flash video, and the uneven rollout of HTML5 all will create headaches for users and IT alike

Web video without ads? No one would mind that. However, iPad users viewing the popular New York Times site are finding out that not having to sit through ads has a price: fewer videos to watch.

Here's why: Apple won't allow Flash based videos to run on an iPad. The Times and thousands of other sites use a media player called Brightcove to play those Flash-less videos. But without Flash, Brightcove can't include ads, or the analytic tools that allow advertisers to measure the performance of ads, said Brightcove's marketing chief Jeff Whatcott. And since ads pay the bills, the Times won't post many videos on the version of its site tuned for the iPad.

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Normally, the technology industry's progress in adopting standards is like making sausage: You don't want to see it or know too much about it. But as the problem on the Times Web site illustrates, the tiff over Flash and a rival video standard called H.264 that's part of the draft HTML5 Web standard is having a real effect on the Web-loving public. Users of mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone are unwilling participants in the skirmish, and you can expect ripples to reach the desktop as well.

[Is Steve Jobs playing fair, or just playing politics, with the Flash complaints? See CIO.com's investigative story Apple-Adobe Feud: Is Flash as Bad as Jobs Says? ]

"Browser wars are back," says analyst Ron Rogowski, of Forrester Research. In the next year or so, you'll see all of the major browsers offering significant upgrades. That's a good thing, of course, but the standards battle means that users will have to upgrade if they want to have a decent experience on many of the sites they visit. And most annoying of all, people who browse at work using locked-down machines will be stuck, says Rogowski. Many businesses are still using Microsoft's IE6, an old browser that simply won't work with video content on sites that have moved to HTML5.

What's New in Firefox 4

The newest member of the browser world is so new that it isn't actually here yet. It is Firefox 4, the open source browser from the Mozilla organization, which previewed its newest version earlier this month.

Mike Beltzner, who heads Firefox development for the Mozilla group, said in a blog post that goals for the new version of the popular browser, expected late in the year, are more speed, a move to new technologies, including HTML5, a cleaner interface, and more user customization and control.

More speed may seem like a given for any new product, but Beltzner was fairly specific, saying that he hopes to eliminate those annoying pop-ups that frequently appear when Firefox loads, delaying startup. Even more significant would be the ability to update in the background, as Google's Chrome browser already does. Whether that feature will make the deadline to appear in Firefox 4 isn't clear; indeed Beltzner was careful to warn that any of the features he previewed in his post are subjected to change.

The interface is likely to change, becoming cleaner and more like that of Chrome's. The home button could disappear and be replaced with a persistent tab, while tabs themselves move about the address bar.

The new version of Firefox will likely have a revamped control panel for managing passwords, cookies, pop-up blocking, geolocation, local data storage, and related details. It will be easier to see what permissions have been granted to Web sites for each category.

And if you've shopped for a Windows PC lately, you've probably noticed how many ship with a 64-bit version of Windows, which supports much more memory than 32-bit versions. Mozilla has noticed that as well, and will support 64-bit operating systems in Firefox.

Flash vs. HTML5: The Backlash

Apple CEO Steve Jobs made a big splash in a blot post outlining why he won't allow Flash to run on Apple's mobile devices. (It does, however, run on Mac computers.) It's a battery hog, he says, and it doesn't support touch and uses up your battery too fast. All of which is true, but Jobs, a big supporter of HTML5, left out a few key facts.

"HTML 5 is superior for text and search optimization," says Forrester's Rogowski. But when it comes to video, HTML5 is slower than Flash or Silverlight, isn't supported by all of today's browsers, and doesn't do as good a job rendering advanced graphics such as 3D, he said.

And as sites start to use HTML5, users hoping to enjoy it will have to download a new version of Google Chrome, Apple Safari, or Microsoft Internet Explorer 9. "Users will have to adjust to a new browsing experience simply to avoid downloading [the Flash] plug-in," said Rogowski.

For technical reasons that have to do with the rules governing open source software, Firefox will have to use a different codec (the part of the browser that decodes and uncompress video), to play HTML5's H.264 video than that used by the other browsers. There's some debate about the quality of the open source codec, but whether it's as good or not, it's simply another layer of confusion that could cause annoyance for Web users.

Ultimately, all this will settle down as the industry figures out how to integrate new technologies. But until it does, browsing the Web will be a bit bumpier than usual, and consumers will be forced to learn more than they want to know about tech-industry standards.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This story, "Caught in the crossfire of the new browser wars" was originally published by CIO.

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