There are several ways technology moves forward.

  • The first way is for the incumbent (the current leaders in a market) to innovate their products forward on their own. Every company and organization that produces software should strive to do this, even if they happen to be a monopoly in their market, though many monopolistic or near-monopolistic companies have decided not to.
  • The second way is for a new product or many products to arrive on the scene that improves significantly upon the incumbent products. In a fully open market, these better products take over from the previous incumbents quickly. Quark XPress, formerly the industry standard for print layout, had grown stagnant and was quickly supplanted by the much-better Adobe InDesign—which has since become the industry standard. This is often the ideal course when the incumbents have ceased to move forward, but it is extremely difficult in a monopoly environment—witness Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari, which have dented Microsoft’s Internet Explorer market share in web browsing but have not yet supplanted it.
  • Finally, when the market leader/monopolist is stagnated and the competitive products have not completely taken hold, you can bring out the sledge hammer: hack and adjust the incumbent product to behave more like the better alternatives, rather than just letting the incumbent hold back market development.

If you are technologically inclined, you are well aware that Microsoft Internet Explorer is not cutting edge. While the most recent version, IE7, is drastically improved over its predecessors, IE and its majority market share for web browsing has made it extremely difficult for innovative web developers to create cutting-edge web sites. After all, what good is a cutting-edge web site that doesn’t work in the crappy browser that most web surfers use?

After accepting this situation for too long, Mozilla has begun to introduce the sledge hammer for Internet Explorer. Mozilla—the group responsible for the excellent Firefox web browser—is working on two plugins for IE to bring it kicking-and-screaming into compatibility with modern web technology. First, a port of the Firefox canvas element renderer to IE (which, if well implemented, will make complex web applications like Google Maps work without having a separate, IE-only version using different code from the rest of the browser universe). Second, a port of the in-progress JavaScript engine Mozilla is working on for Firefox which will also improve web application compatibility.

As Ryan Paul at Ars Technica correctly points out at the previously-linked article, the problem will be adoption. IE users often don’t know that they are using a substandard browser that creates regular nightmares for web developers and holds back adoption of cutting-edge web technology—after all, if they knew they’d be using compliant browsers like Firefox or Safari or even Opera. So if they don’t know there’s a problem, why would they install a plugin to fix it?

One method proposed by Paul would be to get Adobe on board. The Adobe Reader (for viewing PDF files) and Adobe Flash (for viewing web animations and certain web applications) are each widely installed—Flash, especially—and automatically update themselves now and then. The Mozilla plugins, if adopted by Adobe into these two installers, would very quickly reach a high level of adoption in the web community.

The other method—unpleasant as it is—is to keep using the sledge hammer. If, starting tomorrow, every Google application (Gmail, Google Maps, etc.) and other complex web application refused to work in IE with a pleasant notice explaining to the user that IE is not compatible with modern web technology and the user should either install a compatible browser (Firefox, Safari, or Opera) or install the IE plugin, you’ve solved the problem (and probably gotten some frustrated users to switch to better browsers).

Yes, it hearkens back to the early days of the web where there were a million strange plugins and sites would occasionally demand that you install them . . . but with autoupdaters and so on, it becomes a ‘one time’ thing that could conceivably keep itself up-to-date (and even add new IE renderer fixes) periodically. If that’s what it takes to force IE into acting like a modern browser, than so-be-it.