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Another Perspective



PLENTY OF NEWTON

Sir Isaac Newton's Three Laws of Motion form the basis for many useful explanations of the physical world, and they also lend themselves nicely to metaphor when applied to political, social, and economic phenomena.  So, while these laws are more than 300 years old, it's hardly surprising that the rekindling of the Browser Wars is providing fresh stimulus for the use of Newtonian metaphors.  Unfortunately for anyone whose peace of mind depends on the predictability of trends in computing, the contest among web browsers is bringing another law, a philosophical one, into play, namely, the Law of Unintended Consequences.

Sir Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton
Upon reflection, he invented a telescope,
despite his resemblance to Rod Stewart

It's hard to pin down the start of the mess we're about to get into.  It might well be traced back to the second half of the 17th century when Newton was at Cambridge.  Newton's battle with the Saxon Gottfreid Leibniz over who invented calculus (and it seems they both did) helped fuel the intellectual rivalries that provided a basis for the development of what became modern Europe.  Their feud led not only to intensive competition in mathematics and the sciences, but also in the creation of what came to be called technology, the practical application of theoretical science to practical matters, such as gunnery and, more recently, getting consumers to drown in debt.

This latter example suggests that the source of new uncertainty may be somewhat more recent than the 17th century.  It might be the moment Google shares rose past $400 apiece.

Whatever the cause, it won't hurt you to review Newton's Laws.  The first law is that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, while one at rest tends to stay at rest.  Momentum and inertia are big factors in physics, and they are big factors in business, too.  The second law describes the relationship between force and momentum, and it tells you that is you must make a move you had better have the right amount of energy when you shove off.  The third law says that forces come in pairs, that an action is paired with an equal and opposite reaction.  If you lean against powerful technological trends, expect to be leaned upon with equal force (or more, at which time the first two rules start coming into play).

In any event, neither Newton nor Leibniz nor Google ever answered the question of whether the development of technology for the military produced more harm or good, and nobody else has come up with a satisfactory answer, either.  It may depend on whether you ask the gunner or the gunned, but more likely the answer varies with whether you ask the general or the footsoldier.  It certainly does not depend on anything you feed a search engine, or which engine you prefer.

As web browser technology forges ahead, and with it entirely new ways of exploiting the Internet, there will be winners and losers, and not just among the outfits who have created the new generation of browsers.  Google has done what Microsoft never thought of doing or, having thought about it, never had the right insight.  Google has figured out how to turn clicks into cash with brutal efficiency.  Its envious rivals can, for now, only try to imitate the big G.  Some will do this.  Some may even build on what Google has done.  It might even turn out that some company will not only outplay Google at Google's game, but in ultimately do to Google what Google has done to older but apparently not wiser search engine companies.

Newton's Principia
Principia Mathematica
Newton's own copy, on which he scrawled
notes on how to code metaphors for the web

While it is improbable that you are unaware that the Browser Wars, which many thought were fully settled when Microsoft, with its Internet Explorer, beat Netscape, with its Communicator, to a pulp, has begun anew, perhaps it would be useful to glance at the today's three top contenders.  They are Internet Explorer, the Mozilla family of browsers, and Opera.  (A fourth entrant, Konqueror, which is the basis of a very nice Macintosh browser called Safari, has excellent technical credentials, but lacks the big user base to be considered a top contender.)

The current Mozilla browser, Firefox 1.5, and the current Opera, version 8 and change, are miles head of Internet Explorer 6 when it comes to understanding the web page coding made standard by W3C.  IE 7, still in test, will match its rivals when it gets debugged and released, not necessarily in that order.  But Microsoft's plans for IE 7 are going to open a big opportunity for the other brands.  Microsoft seems intent on offering IE 7 only for Windows XP, and that will force anyone using older versions of Windows who wants a modern browser to install one of the alternatives.

It's a very safe bet that most every site on the Internet will move ahead when IE 7 hits the streets.  Many are already prepared for this by taking advantage of the technology in Firefox and Opera (while offering visitors a degraded experience when IE 6 comes a-callin').

Depending on where on the web as you read this very essay, you may in fact be on one of the many sites that has long since moved ahead of IE 6, because coding for the newer browsers is much easier, much cheaper, and much more likely to produce the intended experience for visitors.

Anyone seriously trying to do business on the Internet has to be progressive, because the most popular sites are adapting to improved browser technology as fast as their visitor demographics will permit.  In practice, most of the big name sites try to lead the demographics, the way a hunter leads a flying duck, because there is nothing as deadly to a web site trying to make out in the Googled universe than a retro visitor experience.

Gottfreid Leibniz
Gottfreid Leibniz
Gave the world the monad while waiting
for Google to provide the click ad

The old guard at corporate computing sites, which still believes the world was better off when there were only green screens, are right only in their own cultural frame.  They are dead wrong if they think end users are going to settle for something just because it is practical in traditional information processing terms.  The new and emerging browsers are aimed at users who turn to the web to quickly check a fact, to correct spelling, to keep an eye on their competition, to shop with stealth while supposedly working, and, soon, to use applications that will become available on the web in some sponsored form.  Google is already putting some of the foundation for this in place, Microsoft is thinking seriously about this, Yahoo is scrambling so it's not left out, Amazon is wondering whether it should offer web based services that draw on its statistical understanding of its visitors.

Banks, notwithstanding their legacy back end systems, are moving very quickly into web based services that may initially imitate traditional banking but will soon evolve into new forms.  Insurance companies, similarly embedded in venerable core systems, are looking for ways to serve the public directly and, in doing so, pocket commissions they would otherwise pay to human agents.  Airlines have put hard dollar discounts into tickets they sell via the web, cutting out not only travel agents but also their own telesales groups.

If you're running a traditional computing system, even if you are at a company that's miniscule by the standards of the Fortune 500, you won't be spared.  You will have to cope with the new browsers, which make it dangerously tempting to search the web for better deals and alternate suppliers, all the while helping the search engines amass statistics for their targeting technology.  If you don't, you will be ground to a pulp by other companies much like yours that have accepted, however reluctantly, the post Browser Wars II webscape.

If you're still thinking of a web browser strictly as a means of presentation, you are in big trouble.  That browser can feed back lots of valuable information, not only to help you provide a more pleasing web experience to an end user, but also to help you guide that user gently but effectively toward completing that nice big order.

You will have to choose.  You can be like Newton, awakened to the gravity of the situation by an apple, or like IBM's erstwhile PC division, now part of Lenovo, that was put to sleep by the sight of a Macintosh.

— Hesh Wiener December 2005


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