2012 was a bumper year for the Web. Lets get our crystal ball out and look what we could have in store for us in 2013, in terms of the browser and platform wars.
The desktop browser market
Chrome spent much of 2012 eating marketshare from IE and Firefox. Indeed, the only browser to grow except for Chrome was the other WebKit browser, Safari. However its ~2% marketshare gain was mostly due to Safari on iPad’s growth rather than the desktop browser.
Towards the end of the year, Microsoft released Windows 8 with IE10. As IE10 comes out on Windows 7, and Windows 8 starts to build marketshare, Microsoft will hope it reverse their losses to Chrome. Can they do it? It’s hard to say, but it’s clear that IE10 is Microsoft’s best browser in quite some time. It’s CSS, HTML and ECMAScript support is finally competitive with the competition. It has a WebGL sized hole in its standard support (but how many average web pages use 3D graphics?) and doesn’t support some of the more experimental APIs, but the gap that grew from IE putting its tools down for 5 years has almost closed.
The gap between IE releases have been getting shorter since IE8 came out. If they can reduce that to around a year or less, and keep their current pace of development, could we have a mighty war on our hands between IE and Chrome for marketshare and standards compliance supremacy before the end of the year? It would certainly make things more interesting. Competition breeds innovation, but with Apple and Google using the same engine, not much competition has been happening between those great rivals. Microsoft could really put a cat amongst the pigeons, and break any potential WebKit dominance on the desktop. I strongly believe that engine diversity is good for the Web, so I’ll be hoping for a IE and Firefox comeback in 2013.
One prediction that I hope doesn’t come true is the demise of Opera in the desktop market. In the last year, Opera dropped from 1.98% to only 1.26%. In the early days of January it is down further to 1.16%. Is it in danger of dropping out the top 5 browsers? I’m not sure if Opera is actually losing users, or whether the market is just growing faster than it is.
Prediction: IE11 and Chrome 1,234 (~approx.) going toe to toe by the end of 2013?
Mobile platform wars: the race for third
Forget about the titanic battle for first place in the mobile market. iOS and Android will go at it tooth and nail through 2013, but the latter already has the marketshare battle sewn up globally, as it extends its reach downwards into the more price sensitive markets that Apple chooses not to compete in. The main contest between those two will be who comes out on top in the premium markets, where there is more profit–rather than marketshare–on the line.
The more interesting battle in my mind in 2013 is the looming battle for 3rd place, and thus relevancy, in the smartphone market. For some contestants their entire futures as an independent entity rest on not only wrestling 3rd place out of the hands of their rivals, but building on that platform to get closer to iOS and Android than the rest of the chasing pack. A weak 3rd place won’t be good enough to get developer attention. I suspect these platforms will need to at least get into the double digit market share, or have something else to offer developers to remain in the race. Manoeuvring into third place by the end of 2013 will likely be a key springboard to building out the victor’s ecosystem however.
Who are the likely contestants in this battle? Currently Nokia’s two operating systems; S40 and Symbian are the only two platforms under iOS and Android that are around the 10–15% mark. The latter is a legacy platform that will only drop in popularity as users upgrade their phones. S40 is a feature phone OS, which will presumably stick around a while longer on the low end, but is not part of the app-centric smartphone battle.
The core battle will likely be between Windows Phone 8 and BlackBerry 10. It’s an interesting contest, as BlackBerry still has an edge in terms of marketshare (mostly due to its strong position in the UK and Canada), but it’s influence is fading fast. RIM will need to try to convert those loyal holdouts to BB10. In reality, Windows Phone has the head star,t as BlackBerry is moving to a whole new platform, which is still not on the market. Nokia have an even bigger legacy user base, that can be a key asset if they work out how to get Windows Phone at a price point to attract those users to upgrade and switch to Microsoft’s newer platform. Both Nokia and RIM will need to move fast though, before Android eats up that potential source of new users.
Windows Phone’s market success has never really justified the column inches written about it, but there are signs that it will prove the naysayers wrong. In Europe it is currently the 3rd most popular platform in key markets such as France, Italy, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, and the entire Nordics region. Despite an overall marketshare lead over Windows Phone in Europe, BlackBerry is only more popular in the UK and Portugal. Furthermore Windows Phone has had a large uptick in the last few months, so it looks like momentum is on its side. Microsoft will hope that it can repeat the success it is having in Nokia’s home market of Finland in other markets.
I do hope Windows Phone does well, as we desperately need a successful platform with a none-webKit browser as default. It is also a brave step from Microsoft to focus on design, and not just produce a carbon copy of Apple’s OS (and those before it such as UIQ and PalmOS). My biggest disappointment of 2012 was that Windows Phone 8 didn’t ship with support for native HTML apps in much the same way as Windows 8 did. I think that was a mistake, especially when you consider the similarities between the platforms and the cross pollination it would have allowed. I think it will be coming in 2013 though. Microsoft would be crazy not to. Imagine if the first popular web based mobile operating system ends up being Trident based rather than WebKit? No one would have predicted that a few years ago, but it is well within the realms of possibility.
Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10 are not the only contestants though. Firefox OS will likely make its bow in 2013, and also Ubuntu phone. I believe the latter also ships with a Gecko based browser and HTML app platform. I consider these platforms to be the black horses of the race. Both are from strong and well respected open source friendly companies, but neither have a great deal of experience or history of success in the mobile space. Mozilla have little experience writing operating systems or dealing with OEMs and Operators (the latter of which is one of Opera’s strong suites, and partially why they do so well in the mobile browser wars), while Canonical have a ton of OS experience, but are not exactly known as a web powerhouse (although they do have some people such as Yaili and Stuart who are very much involved in the community).
I do worry that both may be spreading themselves a little thin, and their solutions may be a little late, considering the huge resources available to Apple, Google and Microsoft, and the fact they won’t be standing still waiting for the competition to catch up. Especially considering they are both Gecko based, I would have liked to have seen what a combined effort from Mozilla and Canonical could have looked like. Mozilla would have been able to lend their world class experience in producing a browser, Web APIs, web developer tools, and their influence in the developer and standards communities to Canonical experience writing operating systems and services. They are probably the two biggest names in consumer focused open source software, so people in the developer community at least would sit up and notice. Instead, I fear that both will eat into each other’s potential marketshare, as they go after the same audience and the same developers. They will also potentially fragment the Gecko ecosystem, unless they manage to ship comparable versions.
The final realistic competitor is Tizen from Intel and Samsung. It remains to be seen if Samsung will go all in, or if it will mainly be used as a bargaining chip against Google. Tizen sits atop a pile of caucuses of now abandoned mobile operating systems, such as Bada from Samsung (which was getting some traction in emerging markets), and Meego, Maemo, Moblin, Harmattan and probably half a dozen others I’m forgetting. Whether it is successful where Nokia, Intel and Samsung failed before is anyone’s guess. Its one true advantage is that if Samsung is truly committed to the project, it has the reach and marketing budget to make a fist of it. What it doesn’t have is a strong history making great software, and a strong developer community. If they want “HTML5” developers to develop for the platform, it better start reaching out to them and be involved in the community, starting yesterday.
One of the threads that run through most of these platforms is the support for HTML apps. This is potentially great news for developers, as it allows a way to get apps onto each platform with less work than porting to various different native toolkits. Unfortunately, I expect that rather than work together for the common good, they’ll all have their own system and device APIs and manifest formats. The W3C DAP and Widgets specs have not taken off so far with the larger players, and I don’t really expect this to change in 2013, unless there is a change of attitudes. WebRTC looks like it will be adopted in some form or other (Microsoft have a rival proposal), but that was specced outside of DAP. I’ve not seen the same interest in the various DAP specs such as calendar and contacts APIs. With the two leading WebKit vendors having their own non-Web-based OS’, this is a space where Microsoft, Mozilla and Opera working together could strengthen each other’s hand against the market leaders. In an ideal world, we could just write code once for the non-UI part of the app, but this isn’t the case right now.
Web on TV?
Web on TV has been the next frontier of the web since, well, before web on tablets became the next frontier. I don’t expect things to shake up too much this year. Apple TV could throw a spanner in the works and reinvent the field if it finally comes out with apps, a browser, and a new control method.
The main battle that is brewing is between the console makers and the companion box platforms such as Google TV and Apple TV. In many ways they are converging. Consoles are getting more media centre functionality, and the mobile platforms that the TV boxes evolved from are getting stronger gaming platforms. I suspect the consoles will get better at streaming media and apps faster than the companion boxes get at having top games available, considering many seem to be platform exclusives.
I own a Samsung Smart TV, and rarely use the browser. The main problem is the control method. It takes longer to type in a URL than it does to go to the other room and find my laptop. It has voice and hand gesture support, but I can’t get either to work. Whoever can solve the input dilemma has a good crack at making a browser that people actually use to surf the web. Microsoft may hold some aces up their sleeve with both SmartGlass and Kinect. Using a smartphone or tablet as an input device just makes sense. It will be interesting to see what the next XBox and Playstation come out with. If they are not released until the Christmas season, it won’t be until 2014 that any effects are seen.
It’s not just the control scheme that is the issue though. The other is the content itself. There is certain content that is more suited to accessing on the TV than others. The obvious one is games, where you benefit from having a large display and space for multiple players. Anything which is social in nature can benefit from using the TV, such as streaming music and videos, video conferencing, photo slideshows and so on. My TV doesn’t have an HBO app, so I thought I could access their TV shows via the browser. It seemed like the ideal use case. Unfortunately their site blocks the browser. I had a similar issue with Comcast’s Xfinity site. Some shows do not allow you to beam them to the TV, so I thought I could stream them via the browser. There was no blocking this time, but the stream requires Silverlight, which the TV doesn’t support. These kind of compatibility issues, plus lack of optimisation for the 10 foot viewing experience, puts barriers in front of what would be a fantastic use of a TV browser.
There is also the case of trying to get to the content as quickly as possible. In the days of Teletext, you just pressed one button to access the service, and the content was tied to the channel you were on. Launching the browser would also benefit from this one button access.
The one key advantage a TV browser could have over using a tablet or laptop however, is if it is contextually aware. That is that it could access the video stream you are accessing, and feed related content to the browser or app. This could be anything from having a portal for the channel you are on, to allowing you to access the web site of the product that is being advertised (now, that is the advertiser’s holy grail), get information about the TV show being broadcast, allow you to vote or interact with game shows, and so on. If this was done right, you’d have access with one click, rather than having to search for the content if you were using a desktop or mobile browser. You wouldn’t necessarily access this content on the TV itself. The TV could pass it to a companion device, much like SmartGlass or the Wii U. There is already an industry standard called HbbTV to allow you to access the broadcast stream, but this has only seen any kind of adoption in Europe, and I doubt it will get any kind of mass market adoption this year. It is one to look out for though.
Prediction: Still looking for the web on TV holy grail in 2013, but watch out for what the consoles do going into 2014.