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Why the Browser Battle Is So Important

The bigger question Microsoft needs to address is why it has become so urgent to update Internet Explorer in the first place. The answer is not because it needs to make web pages load faster or add more functionality - these are nice by-products - but because increasingly the Internet is where we do the majority of our computing.

By falling behind in the web browser race it risks user loyalty switching to Chrome, Firefox, Safari or Opera and with it a growing sense of apathy as to which operating system they are running on. As former TrustedReviews writer and coding extraordinaire Andrew Miller told me a few years ago: "I don't care what I'm using as long as I can install Firefox."

It is therefore no coincidence that Google is close to releasing Chrome OS, little more than a self booting web browser and there is a growing clamour around its alternative Jolicloud which just hit v1.0. Apple seems to be headed down a similar route with a centralisation towards mobile computing built around iOS looking ever more likely with the talk about iTV and multi-touch friendly controllers like the Magic Mouse and Magic Pad.

Even Opera - almost as old as IE, having launched its first web browser in 1996 - is getting in on the act courtesy of Opera Unite. Yes there remains a great debate over so-called Cloud Computing, though the arguments typically focus on how long until it becomes a reality - not if.

Another concern for Microsoft is what some may perceive as a strength: Internet Explorer's hold over corporate culture. The much reviled (mostly due to age) Internet Explorer 6 continues to be a the defacto web browser in most enterprise environments and is seen as largely responsible for the otherwise incomprehensible near 10 per cent market share it still enjoyed as of June 2010.

The problem for Microsoft is while this keeps users locked into IE it does so reluctantly and forces them to endure a dated experience which even Microsoft recognises is undesirable. Does this encourage those users to keep using Internet Explorer when they get home? Of course not!

Ultimately then Internet Explorer may be 15 years old, hold the lion's share of the market and be about to receive its most significant upgrade to date, but it is also at its most vulnerable. Web browsers are slowly but surely beginning to undermine the value of buying a premium operating system. How long Cloud Computing takes to go mainstream will be crucial to Microsoft's chances of long term success and, as I have always discussed, this will be the big battle ahead.

In the mean time such high stakes mean the browser war is only going to get more intense. In June Apple launched Safari 5, in July Mozilla released the first beta of Firefox 4 and in August Google released Chrome 6 only to make Chrome 7 available to developers yesterday.

The next few years are going to be one heck of a ride...

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