When Yahoo launched a new mobile browser, Axis – and a set of extensions for different desktop browsers – at the end of May, it barely raised an eyebrow. Yet when reports surfaced at the same time that Facebook might be interested in acquiring Opera Software, the pioneering Norwegian web browser company, the response could not have been more different.
The Opera browser, said analysts, would give Facebook a credible mobile platform that could run on anything from Symbian S60 to Apple iOS. Facebook’s alleged interest in Opera followed reports that Google’s Chrome had, briefly, overtaken Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the world’s most popular web browser.
But why, after a decade in which technology companies had appeared content to concede control of the market to one company – Microsoft – is there such renewed interest in the browser?
Axis of Yahoo
Ethan Batraski, director of product management in search innovation at Yahoo, told Computing that the company had launched Axis for a number of reasons.
“One, the search experience is ripe for consumer-facing disruption. Two, today's always-on, connected lifestyles demand a different search and browse experience that puts mobile first. Three, we believe Axis meets a currently unmet consumer need,” said Batraski.
He added: “Consumers want… to take their personal browsing experience with them wherever they go.”
However, Gartner analyst Ray Valdes suggested that a browser alone would not make a big difference to Yahoo’s position, “but in the right context it can make the difference”.
Unlike many parts of a company’s technology portfolio, Valdes added, a web browser is used as a means of defence as opposed to attack.
“Having a browser allows a company to maintain control over the user experience,” he said. “That is why Google has its own browser, because the user experience is very important and it cannot allow a competitor, such as Microsoft, to control that experience.”
In the first half of the 2000s, Microsoft was widely criticised for failing to innovate as Internet Explorer 6 remained its flagship browser for more than five years.
It was the launch of Google Chrome – vigorously pushed on Google’s websites, as well as by an online and offline advertising campaign – that knocked chunks off Microsoft’s browser share worldwide. Today, the two are running neck-and-neck with about a one-third market share each.
So why have the browser wars returned?
Valdes believes that technology companies are launching new browsers to retain the relationship they have with their customers. Building a browser from scratch is now a more credible activity because the technology has become more settled.
“Open-source components can be put together. So it is possible to build a browser out of those components; namely, the WebKit open-source technology that is used by Apple, Google, Nokia and RIM (for its BlackBerrys),” said Valdes.
He added: “Other companies, such as Opera, Microsoft and Mozilla, do not use the common WebKit rendering engine, but others do. However, only companies with deep technology resources can undertake this, and that would be the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon.”
Social media browser
If Facebook were to launch its own browser, it would not be the first company to attempt to integrate social media elements into it. Two social media browsers have already been independently produced.
“One was called Flock, which was launched about five years ago, and the other was called RockMelt, launched two years ago,” said Valdes. “The idea was that having a dedicated browser for just one kind of application would result in a better experience. These were both small companies with venture capital funding, but neither of them were really successful.
“However, Facebook can leverage its 500 million daily users and 900 million monthly active users – and it can do it better.”
For Facebook, the main attraction of Opera lies in its mobile browser technology.
“There is a challenge for vendors such as Facebook on how to monetise [the mobile environment]. It is possible that if a company has a browser it will open up new monetisation mechanisms,” said Valdes.
The common problem with mobile browsers is that the platform owner invariably takes control, said Valdes. “That is the case with Apple [iOS] and Safari. A third-party web application on an Apple device is not going to perform as well as Apple’s own browser,” he said.
Yahoo’s Batraski suggested that another reason to launch a browser is for advertising revenue.
“Axis potentially brings new opportunities for display advertising,” he said. “Although ads did not appear at launch, Yahoo is actively exploring ways to present the most compelling ads for this new integrated browsing search experience.”
But Valdes believes that any advertising revenue would be miniscule.
“Any revenue it gets will likely be outweighed by the costs of technology development and support,” he said.
Nor does being the “lead browser” matter in the current climate, he added.
“The browser space is currently fragmented and diverse,” he said. “It only matters if there is one player that is clearly dominant over the others, but currently that is not the case. Diversity is increasing.”