Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Why Firefox Matters

I don't know if you've been following all the bruhaha surrounding the beta release of IE7 but it's done something that I would have scarcely thought possible a couple years ago: revived shrillness in the pointless debate over which web browser will save humanity from itself. I admit to caring about web browsers but then I'm a web developer: the capabilities and bugs of the browser du jour have an impact on the quality of my waking hours.

I used to like IE but that's only because it's competition at the time was Netscape 4. I realize now that's like being into Britney Spears because you've only every heard elevator music your whole life. But now there's Firefox and it's like I've just discovered Tom Waits.

For a while I wanted Firefox to be successful if for no other reason than that it would make my life as a developer easier. I wondered what kind of market-share it would have to garner in order for websites to take notice and start designing, if not explicitly for Firefox than at least not implicitly for IE.

Now, I don't care.

I no longer care because Firefox has already succeeded. It succeeded the moment IE7 was conceived. Because what I really care about is not what browser people use but whether I can use transparent PNGs or CSS 3, and the fact of the matter is that most of the world uses IE and IE will soon support those things. But, and this is the important part, it took Firefox to bring IE to that point.

Most of the foregoing doesn't exactly constitute a sharp observation. But when you start to view Firefox not as the carrot that leads us to a better web, but as the stick that drives IE, that's where things start to get interesting.

Take Google for instance. They designed the first web apps that weren't painfully clunky. Gmail compares well to my desktop mail client and Google Maps is the best mapping software I've ever used. And the minute browsers start supporting things like SVG and XForms I'm sure Google will come out with something else that amazes everyone. But Google, like everyone else on the web that cares about staying in business, can only do cool things in so far as those cool things work in IE.

And Google can't exactly force Microsoft to upgrade its browser.

Or can it?