Just 10 years ago, Netscape was on top of the world. Remember that company with the browser that put an “N” on your desktop? Those were exciting times. Early on, Netscape released a new version on what seemed like a weekly basis, and with each new version came more and more functionality. Not surprisingly, Netscape had by many estimates 85 percent of the browser market share.
Enter Microsoft. In August 1995, the little company from Redmond launched its Internet Explorer (IE) browser bundled in a swanky package called the Windows 95 Plus Pack. Unfortunately, the IE browser crashed so frequently and gave end users so many headaches that most people who were trying IE quickly returned to Netscape, which remained the frontrunner in the browser market until the fall of 1997. When Microsoft launched IE version 4.0 in October 1997, the tides of the browser wars were forever changed. While Microsoft was listening to its customers and adding new features to its browser, Netscape lost its end user focus. In late 1998, Netscape surrendered and was bought by America Online.
From 1998 to November 2004 IE was the dominant, if not the only significant player in the browser world with, by most estimates, a 99 percent market share. However, as IE’s dominance increased, its end-user focus decreased. By my own estimate, Microsoft has added little to no increased functionality over the past six years. When a technology company goes too long without adding something new and exciting to the base functionality, end users begin to get restless.
So in November 2004, to the delight of restless end users, Firefox was launched. (If you haven’t downloaded this little gem, I would encourage you to visit http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/.) Similar to Netscape in the early nineties, Firefox is completely focused on user-friendliness. If you’ve ever been surfing the Internet and wanted to open up several Web sites simultaneously, you have to open another instance of IE each time. Those days are over. Firefox has something called tabbed browsing where you can request the browser to open up as many Web sites as you want simultaneously. Tabs are created across the top of the browser representing each Web page you created. A simple click on the tabs alternates the user between multiple websites. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Firefox is enabling the development of new applications. For example, one of the coolest applications I have seen in a long time is the Mozilla Amazon Browser (MAB). Leveraging the Firefox platform, this application becomes an item within the tools drop-down menu of the Firefox browser. When launched, it opens up a small separate window called a Rich Web Application that enables a search of products on all six Amazon branded sites and shows the results in a handy interface similar to a desktop program. According to the MAB Web site, the application allows a search in one window without the distraction of all the images and texts not related to the initial query. This one little application shows us the power of Web services and XML (extensible markup language) messaging, which, by the way, is what most technology end users are demanding these days.
Let me explain. Web services and XML messaging enable interoperability (they can talk to one another and exchange information) between various software applications running on various platforms. The MAB application is a poster child for how things should work. A user opening the MAB browser is presented with a search field similar to Amazon’s Web site. Once a title, subject or author is entered, the search results are displayed. Clicking one of the results produces a picture of the book, availability, ISBN and all the other stuff you would see on Amazon.com. But now comes that interoperability stuff I was talking about. Hitting the “add to cart” button seamlessly transfers you to the secured purchase area within Amazon’s Web site. One click and those books are in the mail.
This Web application demonstrates just how easy it can be for applications to interoperate and how efficient it is for two applications (MAB and Amazon’s Web site) to leverage the same business processes. The result, of course, is a great end user experience.
Although Firefox is a mere three months old, its impact on IE’s market share is undeniable. In that short time, Microsoft’s browser market share has declined to around 90 percent. To most of us a 90 percent market share of anything would be cause for celebration, but in the browser world losing almost 10 percent of the market in fewer than three months is a big deal. Remember just how fast Netscape fell. To be honest, I do not think Firefox will overtake IE anytime soon nor are they attempting to do so. No, Firefox is focused on providing a user friendly and feature rich browser platform for its end users. The point is that for the past six years Microsoft has coasted and somewhat forgotten about its end users because there really was no competition driving Microsoft to add enhancements. However, now that a new player is making waves by focusing once again on the end user, I wonder how long before we see “tabbed browsing” from the folks in Redmond.
So, how does all of this apply to the financial world? End users – whether we are talking about a teller, a back office administrator, I.T., private banker or branch manager – should be driving change and increased functionality. In our onsite interviews with clients, we hear one comment repeatedly regardless of which core system is in use: “It’s not user friendly.” Following these interviews, we are compelled to see the systems with our own eyes, and many times we come away with the same thought: “It’s NOT user friendly.” What I mean by user friendly is, how easy is it to navigate the screen and perform a specific job’s requirement? Also, how seamless can an end user go from one application to another without having to enter another password? Does the customer information pass from one application to the next or does the end user have to re-enter the information?
During the past year core vendors have been on an acquisition spree. Many of the acquisitions appear to be ancillary products that should enhance their core offerings. So with all the vendors chanting the Web services and XML mantra these days, I am actually looking forward to some upcoming demos. I will be watching closely for that elusive prize of user friendliness, especially from vendors who have filled their coffers with acquired ancillary applications.
My scorecard will be pretty simple:
If the vendors are truly adopting a Web services environment, if they’ve standardized on XML, but most importantly if they have been listening to their end users like they say they are, then the answer to my scorecard questions should be clear…. crystal clear.
The moral of this story is simple. Pay attention to your end users. If you are not listening, someone else will be. And like the recent example of Firefox, they might just sneak up and bite you!
End users unite