One of the comments on the antitrust complaint against Microsoft I see a lot is: "So what if most people are using IE and aren't aware that there are choices? I'm using Opera/Firefox/Chrome just fine."
Sometimes we may feel that something doesn't really affect us. But does IE's dominance on the Web affect us even though it might not feel that way?
The answer is: Yes, definitely. But the problems with a monoculture on the Web extends beyond browsers! A single point of failure is a bad thing no matter what.
The recent ActiveX security flaws in IE once again show us that a browser monoculture is a bad thing because those looking to infect people's computers will have a single target with a very nice return of investment. And those millions of compromised computers can be used for things like sending spam to the rest of us.
But it goes much further than just IE. One could argue that just about any kind of dominance of the Web is a bad thing. …
Yesterday's news that a vulnerability in the Flash plugin is being actively exploited, to me at least, raises concerns about relying on a single plugin by a single vendor on the Web. Flash is installed on 99% of the world's desktop computers according to Adobe. I can't vouch for the validity of that claim, but there is little doubt that Flash is installed on probably a majority of desktop computers.
I'm sure you're seeing what I'm seeing right now. The majority of (if not almost all) desktop computers are currently widely open to attacks from malware which none of the major antivirus solutions are able to prevent! And this is all because we are relying on a single implementation from a single vendor.
In light of this, Google's push to use their plugins in all browsers instead of open standards for things we do on the Web is worrying. To be fair, their long-term goal seems to be standardizing the technologies behind these plugins, but what happens in the meantime? What happens if all browsers come to rely on this plugin? What happens if a Flash-like security flaw appears and the story is repeated?
Monoculture harms the Web
Monoculture on the Web, whether through browsers or browser plugins, is a bad idea. In a perfect world, we would not have to rely on proprietary technologies for something as basic as video on the Web. In a perfect world, there would be a number of different browsers, and none of them would be in a completely dominant position. If malware authors had to target 10 different browsers instead of just 1 or 2, or a single plugin, they would have a much harder time than today.
Don't listen to people who think it would be a good idea with just "one target browser". The problems open Web standards are facing today are not solved by promoting a browser monoculture. The problems are solved by even more browsers (with even more browser engines) entering the market and forcing Web authors to write standards compliant code.
Yes, I want more browsers (browser engines) on the market. And I want the standards compliant ones to gain ground, and to implement technologies that make browser plugins superfluous for Web content.
Pushing towards the end of Web monoculture
Sorry Adobe, but your time should have been up by now. You may be proud of the Flash's penetration on the Web, but as it turns out, this is also a weakness. Do you remember how Firefox was released at just the right time to capitalize on the increased focus on security flaws in IE, and how they gained a lot from that?
Hopefully the security shortcomings of plugins like Flash will receive a similar treatment, and people will flock to open Web standards in order to support one specification rather than one common implementation (and common weak link).
The effort needed to replace these proprietary technologies with open standards should not be underestimated, though.