Why OmniWeb Failed
Update: See comments below for a response from Omni Group The OmniWeb Web browser is, for the most part, no more. Though the announcement last week highlighted the fact that it was now available for free, the buried lead is that they are stopping active development on the browser. Though they aren’t ruling out future updates, they aren’t promising any either and they didn’t open source the browser. With the browser wars the way they are, that’s as good as a death sentence.
However, most people that used OmniWeb seemed to like the browser. I tried it several times over the past few years, never quite getting to the point where I was willing to pay for it after the trial ended. Sadly though, the browser couldn’t build any real traction. Many Mac users were unaware it was available and, those that did, seemed to always go back to free browsers.
It was, and still is, a fairly innovative browser and one that works fairly well. Based on Webkit, it’s a fast browser with an intersting “tabs on the side” system that uses thumbnails of pages rather than a traditional tab bar. It also has a slew of built-in features, such as ad-blocking, workspaces and individual site preferences.
Yet, the browser is clearly being put into retirement. Where did it go wrong and how can other “deep in the pack” browsers, such as Flock and Opera, avoid a similar fate?
The Business Model
When it comes to determining why OmniWeb is sliding out the exit, many are going to instantly point to the business model for the browser. It was, until the announcement, a paid browser in a field of freebies. Though the price was low, fifteen dollars, it was definitely a barrier to entry.
That being said, I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, if there has ever been a time for a paid browser to succeed, this is it.
Think about it. The browser is now more integral to our lives than ever. Where five years ago it was a fancy box to look at Web pages, now it’s a mail client, an office suite, a publishing platform and more. Where once a browser was just a commodity, now it is an integral part of our work experience. Where once we could “make do” with any browser, now a good one is a necessity.
The problem with selling a browser is that there are so many good ones out there for free. Between IE, Firefox, Safari, Opera, Flock and so forth, there is a wide selection of good (or in the case of IE, ‘meh’) browsers that can do what most users need and either come installed with the OS or can be freely downloaded. Furthermore, if you want to sell a browser, you aren’t just competing with Firefox, IE, etc. but all of the add-ons and plugins created for them.
That’s a tough sell to say the least but it can be done. If you can bring something new, powerful and compelling to the table, you can probably sell it. If you can make the browser more useful and more powerful for how people use the Web today, there may be a market for selling copies.
In the meantime though, it seems that the “free browser, split search revenue” model for the browser is going to remain the focus. It’s made the non-profit Mozilla Organization a ton of cash and seems to be keeping Flock afloat, even with barely six million users.
Though the business model may have contributed to OmniWeb’s problems, I don’t it was the sole cause of the browser’s lack of traction. I think the browser had, and continues to have, bigger problems.
The Bigger Missteps
In my experience using OmniWeb, I noticed that I would use the browser almost exclusively for the whole 30-day trial but, when it expired, I could never quite bring myself to turning over my credit card. It wasn’t the price itself that bothered me, just a difficulty justifying the purchase. Thinking back, I see why I had the problems I did.
- Not Innovative Enough: Though Omniweb did try to bring something new to the browser, its most obvious feature, the tab sidebar, could be easily replicated using a single extension for Firefox. It’s hard to convince me to pay for something that is available for free so trivially.
- Stability: The Omni Group does a great job building software that doesn’t leak memory or slow down computers. Omniweb is no different. However, it does seem to crash at semi-regular intervals for me. It’s not an “all the time” problem that was a deal breaker, but a few times a week it would go down completely, even Safari 4 beta seems to be more stable.
- Poor Feature Parity: Though the Firefox extension system is something of an inelegant solution when it comes to adding needed features, some of the extensions do add very compelling elements. Though OmniWeb attempted to add some of the more popular features back in, they were poor substitutes. Ad blocking in OmniWeb, for example, was a poor substitute for AdBlockPlus.
In short, OmniWeb, as a paid browser, did not offer anything that was compelling enough to get me to pay for it. In fact, even with it being free, its unlikely that I’ll use it as my main browser.
How to Sell a Browser
As I said above, it isn’t that I think one can’t offer a browser for sale and make money, it’s that Omni Group didn’t do it well enough. This is largely likely caused by the fact that, by their own admission, they are a small company and didn’t have the resources to really build the browser they needed to. They are right to shift their focus to other, more lucrative, apps.
So how would one build a browser for sale? Here’s my suggestions:
- Come Packing: If your browser comes with a price tag, it needs to come with some kick-ass features. It needs to be so unique and so powerful that other browsers struggle, through hacks and extensions to get something resembling it. It needs to offer unique, compelling features and be the fastest, most stable browser available. Difficult? Yes. But not impossible.
- Target Power Users: This may seem obvious, since power users are the ones most likely to pay for a browser, but OmniWeb screwed this one up. Most of the features of OmniWeb were targeted at the ease-of-use crowd and not the “need to write four blog posts and check my Gmail” crowd.
- Rethink the Browser: As I’ve noted before, the Web browser has not changed much in the past ten years or so. The earliest browsers look and function much like the current ones. If you’re going to charge for your browser, it needs to shake things up and not just follow the leader. Being genuinely better will mean doing something radically different that not everyone will like. However, those who do like it will like it enough to pay you money.
The bottom line is that, if you’re going to charge for a browser, it isn’t enough that it be a solid one, which OmniWeb is, it has to be clearly superior, at least to a certain group, and one that other browsers strive to be like.
The question isn’t whether anyone can sell a browser and make a profit, it is whether someone will invest the time, resources and energy into making it work. It’s going to take more than what Omni Group was able to muster for its browser. Other companies that used to charge for their browser, such as Opera, have also switched to other business models for much the same reason.
But these failures are not due to a market that won’t pay, they are due to the fact that OmniWeb, like Opera, was never able to distinguish itself clearly enough from free alternatives to justify any price tag. Though many feel OmniWeb was the superior browser on Mac, very few felt it was superior enough to justify opening their wallet.
Anyone who wants to sell a browser has a tall mountain to climb and there’s no shame in failing, Opera has done great things with the free model, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be climbed and, as the browser becomes more and more the hub of all our computer activities, that opportunity will only grow.
Of course, as the free alternatives improve, the challenge of getting consumers to open their wallets will only become greater over the years.
In short, if someone’s going to do it, it is now or never…