And that’s when it got me thinking. What were the problems to the masses that got them switching over in the first place? Last year I wrote a bit about The Change Function, a concept that proposes that people move over to new products based on the relationship of two variables: Perceived Crisis and Total Perceived Pain of Adoption. And at the height of the Firefox craze, there was a a very real crisis across the Internet and it came in the form of viruses, pop-ups and spyware.
Between 2003 - 2004, we were at the peak of the crisis with the Internet suffering from spam terrorism. During the height of conversions, Firefox was one of the first popular solutions for making the web usable again. Yes, it loaded faster and sure it had tabbed browsing, but the biggest difference of opening a web site in Firefox versus Internet Explorer 6 was that you weren’t ashamed to do so around children and colleagues at work.
Toolbars Killed the Firefox Star
In 2005 something happened. Pop-ups and spyware started to become less of a problem. Here’s a graph courtesy of Google Trends that shows the decline in users searching for popup and pop-up over the last few years.
Firefox was just one solution of many that were released by everyone and their mom to help make the Internet safe again from popups and spyware. There were countless programs created to help fight the good fight. Even AOL pitched in, releasing AOL version 9.0 and AOL Spyware Protection in 2004. My guess is that Google Toolbar, Yahoo Toolbar, MSN Search Toolbar and Windows Live Toolbar were probably the most popular and they all patched up IE6’s biggest problem (in the eyes of users) by blocking popups.
In regards to the spyware hysteria, here’s a look at the activity involving searches for the term spyware in relation to the popup searches in Google Trends:
To give you some context that might explain things, at the end of 2004, Microsoft finally released Windows XP Service Pack 2 and if you look at the feature list, you’ll notice the first one highlighted is “Internet Explorer Pop-up Blocker.” In January 2005, Microsoft launched their Anti-Spyware and Anti-Virus Tools, which was offered for free and seeing that it came from a familiar (and some-what) trusted source—it too, was downloaded like gangbusters.
And so we shouldn’t be surprised that in the fall of 2005, a number of reports started coming in from bloggers wondering about the slowing of Firefox adoption. By the end of the first quarter of 2006, we can see that spyware was on the slow decline in the minds of users of the Internet. By the time Internet Explorer 7 came out in the fall of 2006, the crisis was basically over and the masses were already content customizing their favorite web 1.0 application (MySpace), which worked just fine in IE6.
One might even argue that the arrival of IE7 was way too late and probably explains why the browser’s adoption rate (and I’m guessing here) follows the adoption rates of Vista and those who are willing to let SP2 just install it for them. What’s interesting is that Microsoft should be thanking Google. The company that had done the most to encourage Firefox adoption, might have also done the most harm with their, well…excellent toolbar for IE6. In fact, Google’s toolbar and desktop search applications pretty much launched the whole toolbar battle that’s been raging between the trinity (Yahoo, Google and Microsoft). My bet is that for every toolbar that was installed on Internet Explorer 6, it effectively halted the need for that user to convert to a different browser.
The Effect of iTunes and BitTorrent
If you can remember, the primary delivery mechanism of a number of spyware and popup programs was through file sharing networks like Kazaa and BearShare. The need of the public to search and download millions of songs and videos (and porn) was exploited by numbers of malicious advertisers and web sites by uploading tons of self-installing programs disguised as desirable media. File sharing programs themselves even turned out to be spyware.
In April of 2003, which was in the middle of this crisis, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, a legal alternative to downloading music that people seemed to be happy to see just work. It took a few years, but by the summer of 2005 over half a billion songs had been downloaded through the iTunes. Following their lead, a number of music download services launched and the demand for music and videos was met with a safe, perceptively cheap and extremely easy outlet.
In addition to a legal alternative, traditional file sharing networks were also being replaced by a new mechanism for media transfer: BitTorrent. What’s interesting about the torrent community, is their dedication to quality. The most popular torrents are carefully cataloged and meticulously labeled and compressed. It’s a relatively safer community than traditional file sharing networks based on Gnutella clients and the worst thing you’ll come across in your downloads are poisoned torrents from HBO.
While Bram Cohen, implemented the first versions back in 2001, it wasn’t until 2003 that the protocol became hot when it was combined with RSS to create broadcatching. Popularized by Steve Gilmor’s article, which was written for Ziff-Davis (they own PC Magazine and a number of other popular media sites), the idea that you can just subscribe to your favorite shows and watch them the day after they aired captured the imaginations of a large number of users hoping for the convenience of TIVO without the costs.
And so, in addition to spyware being blocked by toolbars and other helpful applications, the channel by which spyware and viruses were infecting browsers and computers, was replaced by alternatives that produced clean downloads. The crisis that gave birth to Firefox’s rising popularity was extinguished on two fronts and from unexpected sources.
What about Safari?
In regards to Safari, the increased adoption there (like Internet Explorer 7) is probably tied to the increased market share Apple’s computers are making in the PC market. I find it interesting that some people think Apple’s release of Safari for Windows is a serious attempt to gain browser adoption on the personal computer. The thing is nothing has changed. The factors that lead users to switch to Firefox aren’t around anymore and so what real hopes does Apple have for people to switch to Safari?
Safari is entering a crowded space and is far from being above and beyond better than its competition. Let’s face it, Firefox is a great browser with a great development team behind it and beating it on quality and innovation will be tough. If anyone understands the importance of a vacuum or crisis to cause users to switch, Apple certainly does. The iPod, iTunes Music Store and iPhone were are released in those conditions. Knowing this going in, I’d like to argue that Steve Jobs has no real passion about growing Safari usage on Windows. If you listen to the keynote when he announced the beta, he was even half-hearted about his enthusiasm for Safari making some headroom in the market.
No, browsing on the Internet on a personal computer doesn’t suck anymore. Where it does suck, however, is on the cell phone. Safari isn’t leaps and bounds better than Firefox or IE7, but it is ridiculously better than every mobile browser out on the market today. So the serious strategy, I think, for Safari is to grow it like iTunes, which piggybacked off the iPod. Make the hardware associated with it (iPhone) number one in its market and then by it being the default and only browser on the system (one of the adoption factors I list below), you spread your software better than if you were to try and compete directly with other vendors. Considering the fanfare iPhone has received so far, it’s hard to believe it won’t take off like the iPod.
Here’s what I think about the release of Safari on the Windows platform. It has less to do with attempting to actually be a competitor in the browser space as it does with giving developers a tool to accurately test and build iPhone applications. Steve Jobs said there wouldn’t be an SDK for the iPhone because he essentially just announced it with the release of Safari 3 for both operating systems, which is, for the most part, exactly what he said. Apple is betting that Safari is going to be the #1 mobile browser because the iPhone is probably going to be the #1 cell phone. And if the world is moving towards an Internet powered by mobile broadband, then developers (knowing how the story went with IE6) are going to make sure their sites and web applications works on the #1 platform.
My theory of browser adoption is built on the foundation that your typical user is incredibly lazy and hates change. There are really only two factors driving browser adoption.
- Was it the default browser on the system?
- Does it make browsing the Internet suck?
What I find most interesting is that web developers (specifically those of the standards and Web 2.0 variety, which includes myself), were so excited by the Firefox momentum that we were convinced that it was a revolution. We actually thought the masses were starting to believe Internet Explorer was Satan incarnate. Just goes to show that it has to be in your face popups of wangs and cooters to make you download something different.