January 29, 2003

The Price of Free

Rob pointed me to the story about Opera getting out of the browser business on the Mac platform the other day. My gut reaction to this news was essentially “good-riddance”. Rob pointed out that Apple has taken a very aggressive stance recently with a number of companies which write software for the platform and that this may do more harm than good in the long term. This made me think about the recent insights made by Panic’s Steven Frank and Chimera’s Mike Pinkerton about the impact that Apple’s free, bundled software has had on Audion and Chimera respectively.

Operating system vendors have a fundamental advantage over competitors and the software industry is a tough environment to succeed. Particularly when the established companies can use half-baked copyright and intellectual property laws to sue startups out of existence. However, it’s really hard to feel sorry for Opera. One, their goal is to charge for a product people have been programmed to expect for free. (You can thank Microsoft for opening that can of worms.) Two, they’re trying to compete in a very saturated market. Three, their product sucks. Everytime I’ve checked out the latest release of Opera for the Mac it has disappointed me. From its sketchy standards support to its ghastly user interface.

Opera says it’s up to Apple. Essentially, “you license our browser our we’re not going to make it any more.” I predict Apple’s response will be something to the effect of “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And as far as the platform is concerned I think its better off without Opera. Now, Chimera on the other hand is a fantastic browser. Pinkerton’s rumblings about quitting its development were met with strong support from the Mac community to extend the browser’s life. And it looks like he will. Which is great for innovation and competition. And it will help show that Mozilla and the Gecko engine still have an edge when it comes to standards support.

As for Apple driving out other competition, sure, it may hurt them in the long run. But Apple’s software is great. And not because it’s cheap or, in some cases, free. It’s because Apple understands the platform and, to an extent, good UI.

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