How Google will kill Internet Explorer and save the web

Update: This open letter from the EFF to Google makes some of the same points, particularly how Google is probably the one company able to establish an open video standard for the web.

Update 2 (19/5/2010): Steps 1 and 2 in my prediction appears to have happened. Google is open-sourcing VP8 in the hope of making it (in the form of WebM) the standard for internet video. They will transcode all YouTube video to WebM. And Firefox and IE9 (in a half-assed way) have already committed to supporting it.

Update 3 (8/6/2010): Some of the best writing on this topic can be found on Diary Of An x264 Developer by Jason Garrett-Glaser (aka Dark Shikari), especially this and this. In short: he also anticipates the YouTube gambit (“Blitzkrieg”), and would welcome a truly open, patent-free video format for the web to oust Flash, but points out many existing and potential problems with WebM/VP8 that may be its undoing, and does not see H.264 going away. Wait and see, basically.

Update 4 (30/6/2010): YouTube speaks: “While HTML5’s video support enables us to bring most of the content and features of YouTube to computers and other devices that don’t support Flash Player, it does not yet meet all of our needs. Today, Adobe Flash provides the best platform for YouTube’s video distribution requirements, which is why our primary video player is built with it.” So, not soon, anyway.

I’d like to make a prediction. I’m probably not the first to make it, and I may be utterly wrong, but just in case I prove to be right, I’d like to have it on record.1

I believe Google is planning to kill off Internet Explorer, within the next two years, and I think they can succeed. By “kill off” I mean turn it from the majority browser into a niche browser (<20% for all versions combined.) I believe the strategy relies on Chrome Frame, YouTube, and HTML5 video using the VP8 format.

The game plan

Step 1. It is rumoured Google will soon open-source the VP8 video compression format by On2 Technologies, whom they bought earlier this year. They’ll do so in the hope that it would become the default video format on the web, over Theora (open but technically inferior) and H.264 (superior but patent-encumbered). If they did so, Mozilla, Webkit and Opera browsers, with their fierce competition and fast update cycles, will likely hedge their bets and quickly add support for VP8, in addition to the formats they already support.

Step 2. Google will transcode all videos on YouTube to VP8 format, and serve this as the default to capable browsers. Converting such a vast amount of video is a monumental task, but Google has the resources to do it.

Step 3. Once the release versions of all the major non-IE browsers are capable of displaying VP8 HTML5 video without a hitch2, Google will make its final move. Notices will appear on YouTube that they will soon turn off support for Flash, and serve all video as VP8 only. If you use Firefox, Safari or Chrome, you won’t notice a difference. But if you’re using Internet Explorer, not to worry: all you need to do is install a simple plugin: Chrome Frame.

Chrome Frame effectively turns Internet Explorer into Chrome. It still looks like you’re running IE, but the rendering engine has been replaced by Google’s. (Only on request, though: web authors have to explicitly ask for Chrome Frame to be used if available. The rest of the time IE remains unchanged.)

YouTube is Special

YouTube is unique on the web in that pretty much everyone uses it: it is the third most visited site after Google and Yahoo. I would wager that, within a month, some 80% of web users will have visited YouTube, and the vast majority of Internet Explorer users will have installed the plugin they need to continue getting their funny cat fix. Where else would they go? Sure, there are other video sites out there, but none truly compete with YouTube, in terms of volume of content, or audience size.

At the same time, very few people would be able to lambast Google for breaking something that harms their business or access to vital information. Very few people need YouTube, and very few of those will be unable to install the plugin or switch to a different browser.

In a matter of months, the vast majority of IE users will either have switched to a different browser, or installed Chrome Frame, effectively turning it (on demand) into Chrome. IE’s market share (if you look at the actual rendering engine) will collapse from 55% today3 to under 20% (and hopefully much lower).

This will reveal Google’s acquisitions of YouTube, On2, and their development of their own Chrome browser, merely as components in a masterpiece of long-game strategy. Without every one of these components, each monumental and expensive in themselves, the strategy couldn’t succeed. Nobody but Google could’ve done it.

The result

And what a future this will win for the web. Look at this demonstration of the capabilities of HTML5 and CSS3, and imagine a world in which every new website can use every part of it. This could be seen as a massive upgrade for the internet. Imagine not needing to support outdated versions of IE anymore. Only if you had to support a significant customer base locked in by IT policy, a rapidly-dwindling segment, would you still need to support IE.

How will this affect other players? It will be a mortal blow against Adobe, with Flash rapidly losing its hold over internet video over the ensuing months. This would suit Apple fine, who are already doing their best to keep Flash off Apple hardware. (They’re currently putting their weight behind H.264, but that’s simply the best option at the moment.) The Flash plugin will likely remain ubiquitous for a while still, but will be increasingly marginalised, and find its place usurped by JavaScript, Canvas and SVG as support for these open technologies become near-universal.

Microsoft can only respond by getting IE users to upgrade to the latest versions as quickly as possible, and add support for VP8 video. This will suit Google and the web just fine, since IE9 promises to be on par with the competition in its support for modern web technologies. But they will no longer be able to act with the hubris of majority market share, and will be forced into a position of playing catch-up to faster-evolving browsers.

For Google, of course, this is essential for its vision of the browser as operating system4.

  1. I deliberately did not do a web search to check for other articles making the same prediction, as I wanted to think it through for myself.
  2. Here’s a possible weak point in my argument: Unlike H.264, VP8 currently does not benefit from hardware acceleration (especially important on mobile platforms.) If this proves to be a major factor, the timeframe may need to be longer to allow for the natural cycle of hardware upgrades. (Fortunately this is more rapid for mobile devices.)
  4. The front-end of the Internet operating system, that is.

18 thoughts on “How Google will kill Internet Explorer and save the web

  1. Doug Winter

    Unfortunately a lot of people don’t run IE by choice – it’s in their corporate desktops. And they don’t have the choice to install Chrome Frame either, because they are using locked down desktops.

    “But I can’t watch YouTube videos” is unlikely to play too well with corporate IT either! :)

  2. Bobo

    Why would Apple support VP8. There’s no reason for them to, and their broadly antagonistic to Google at this point.

    Having to install a codec is just a pain for consumers as a plugin, somewhat causes friction even if Google make it freely available.

    Can YouTube afford to drop H.264 support? To my knowledge they haven’t been able to turn anything off. Even if they have the question still stands regarding H.264

    Finally WM9 is not such a bad codec, why would MS support anything else natively.

    I think were looking at a Balkanized HTML5 video world which can’t replace the status quo for many years.

  3. Francois Jordaan Post author

    Doug: What proportion of IE’s current 55% market share would you say consists of locked-down IT? Fairly large, but I’d be surprised if it’s more than half. The rest is accounted for by ignorance, indifference and inertia. All of whom will switch following the YouTube move.

    After such a seismic market share shift (with IE become a minority), I’m hoping that the already-significant pressure on corporate IT managers to upgrade will drastically increase. If the new browser landscape creates a groundswell of sites using modern web technologies, IE users will rapidly become aware of being second-class citizens on the web.

    It’s always a chicken-and-egg situation, of course, but my argument is that this change may be big enough to be a tipping point.

    (Also bear in mind the hardware upgrade cycle will continue eroding IE6 and IE7 systems out there — over 2 years probably a significant proportion.)

  4. Francois Jordaan Post author

    Bobo: Aren’t Google in a position of power over Apple here? Apple desperately want YouTube to play on iPhones and iPads. What will they do if Google starts serving VP8 instead of H.264?

    It is currently beneficial for Google to serve H.264 — there is no alternative. But the moment there is an alternative that suits them better I think they’ll do it.

    Upgrading browsers is no longer a pain for consumers: it just happens automatically. That’s how they get their new codec.

    Microsoft are notorious for continuing down dead ends for long periods (see Silverlight), but they’ve always been able to do so from a dominant position. Let’s see what happens when they find themselves with a minority of users.

    It is an awfully messy situation out there, I agree. But this scenario is the only one I can imagine that is disruptive enough to reshape it rapidly.

  5. IceBrain

    “Having to install a codec is just a pain for consumers as a plugin, somewhat causes friction even if Google make it freely available.”

    It’s not harder than installing Flash, yet everyone has it.

    “Finally WM9 is not such a bad codec, why would MS support anything else natively.”

    Because nobody but porn sites use it?
    Besides, Microsoft is part of the patent pool for H.264:

  6. BenAlabaster

    I love this idea – in concept. However, reality isn’t just as simple as “pressuring I.T. departments to upgrade the browser”. The fact is that companies have spent millions/billions of dollars over the years implementing applications that are served in the browser [the apps targeted this browser because it was pre-installed and therefore didn’t cost anything to rollout]. Some of these applications have long seen the back of the developers that built and/or maintain them.

    In order to ditch the browser for another in many cases these applications need to be fixed, tested and redeployed. In some cases the applications were so tailored towards the browser it was intended to run in that there is virtually no avenue for fixing and they will need to be rewritten entirely at a cost similar to the initial investment.

    Companies who have spent in the millions developing these apps are unlikely to want to spend millions again just to upgrade a browser that arguably still does at it was intended to – display web pages. Before you argue that point, I get it, I’m a developer, I’m just playing devils advocate for the corporate argument against change.

    The passionate programmer in me would dearly love to see the back of the older versions of IE… and would love to see apps transferred off the older browser specific formats and upgraded to HTML5/CSS3/jQuery. The realist in me knows that it’s going to take a long while to kill of IE6.

    I still see applications in use that were written back in the 80s. The rationale is that if it costs more to rewrite the software than it costs to repair/replace the hardware then leave it be. It’s only once the cost of replacing the hardware exceeds the cost of rewriting the application will corporations think about rewriting – and that’s why I have my current job. Replacing the old 32 bit single core hardware is now more prohibitive than rewriting the application that will only work in that environment, thus the company has agreed to rewrite the application.

    So as you see, until you see the older applications are no longer of use to the company that’s using them and have been replaced with something less archaic, we’re kind of stuck.

    Writing software for the browser instead of writing for the standard just meant that the browser became part of the platform… if Netscape 4 had been the pre-installed browser, we’d have the same problem and everyone would be bitching about the fact that we’re stuck supporting that.

    This is the problem you have when you cater to browser specific technology instead of writing to the standard. If you want browser flexibility, you’ve gotta stop catering to browser specific features.

    10 years from now we’ll all be complaining that Google Chrome 1.0 needs to be dropped… and we’ll be in the same boat.

    What we need is a browser that has a dynamic rendering engine – in that it pulls its engine down from a CDN at browse time just like we do with jQuery. Our applications can then target a rendering engine and our browser software pulls down the correct engine for the application as it’s needed. This way software written for IE6 can run in the same browser as software that’s written for HTML5.

  7. Francois Jordaan Post author

    BenAlabaster: Surely the picture 10 years from now won’t be as bad (complaining about Chrome 1.0). Software nowadays updates itself regularly, unlike the Microsoft software of old. (Or would the same locked-down corporate IT systems also prevent this from happening? I doubt it, given that most updates include security enhancements.) And while the browsers are so evenly matched, you can expect them to favour standards and stay compatible with each other.

    You’re right, many companies do find themselves stuck with IE6 for the sake of mission-critical software built on it. In theory, that doesn’t prevent those companies from relegating IE6 to that purpose only, while also installing a newer browser for general web browsing. But I’m speculating.

    At any rate, I hope you agree that we’re going to be talking about the exception rather than the rule, if the YouTube switchover happens. Only sites whose audiences post-switchover still have a meaningful IE6/7 share would still have an argument for backwards-compatibility. Risk-averse clients could no longer simply defer to global browser stats. And it would be easier to get them to accept visual compromises in IE.

  8. Djoh

    I think you’re mistaking the importance of IE in the corporate world.
    I’m a big fan of Firefox, Chrome and even Opera. For some time I was even using Maxthon. But now that I’m IT Manager, I have to recognize the fact that nothing could replace IE now.
    Chrome has been very clever on that point, it’s taking the settings (including Proxy) from IE. Thus, users can use Chrome while I can deploy a new proxy.
    With firefox, there’s just no way.
    Now for the usage itself of IE or Chrome. Many internal websites have been developed for being used with IE only. And you cannot blame them, 5 years ago it was the way to do it.
    It won’t change any time soon.
    Moreover, if a user is having IE at work, most probably that he’ll be using IE at home too.
    You can have a look here and see that IE is used more in the week days. Which is the proof for my first point…

  9. Doug Winter

    Francois: Corporate desktops do not auto-update, even if they choose IE7, they keep the same version.

    And I reckon you’d find that nearly 100% of IE6 users are on corporate desktops too!

  10. Michael Bogo

    Francois, I like the theory, and clearly a web designed for something above IE6 will be a boon to everyone. In terms of IE6 in the corporate world – there are a lot of legacy applications that don’t work in IE7+. However, with regular support for XPSP2 ending this summer and Windows 7 having proven itself as a mature OS, most corporations that I’ve worked with already have Windows 7 migrations plans in the formative stages or beyond. Applications that refuse to run on Win7 will be relegated to RDP servers or delivered through Citrix XenApp.

    With the recession ending, IT spending has been increasing – this additional spending will be spent largely on long-term cost-cutting measures to make IT departments more lean and a large part of that will be cutting out expensive-to-support legacy applications, especially since much of the knowledge capital necessary to run those has been let go.

  11. Brendan

    If the corporate employee who uses IE at home finds that Youtube doesn’t work on her home machine, she will take steps to remedy the problem.

    If lots of corporate employees did this, IE’s user base would drop significantly. It would only be used by corporate employees for corporate browsing.

    IE would then become far less important to Microsoft strategically. Microsoft would be less inclined to make the investment necessary for it to compete with the likes of Chrome, Safari etc.

    As a result IE’s feature set would fall behind these other browsers over time. It would become a niche browser, an enterprise browser largely optimised for viewing Sharepoint intranets.

  12. davide

    This article assumes that microsoft will do nothing to counter the IE crisis.. this is unrealistic

  13. steve

    About time =]

    With something like youtube and well google itself they can get a lot of people to switch rather easily

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  15. Francois Jordaan Post author

    Most of the comments have focused on those unable to switch: locked-down corporate users. It’s impossible to know with any accuracy what proportion of IE users they represent, but if the YouTube switchover happens, I think we’ll find out. My contention is that pretty much all users who *can* switch, will. And then we’ll see what browser landscape we’re left with. I still think the change will be seismic.

  16. Chris

    All of this is a nice thought but in two years the mobile market will be the only thing worth paying attention to. As it stands, the Japanese use mobile web far more than traditional web, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s only going to grow by leaps and bounds here in the US too. Who cares about IE anyway, if you’re not pushing your clients to drop support and explore other methods and mediums then you’re just as much of a dinosaur as the browser.

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