The stranglehold of technology giants makes the web browser market an inhospitable place for newcomers, no matter the quality of their product.
The latest data shows that Google Chrome is the vehicle for roughly 65% of all web activity, followed by Apple’s Safari (19%), leaving the rest to divide the scraps between them.
Until steps are taken to prevent Apple and Google leveraging their control of major operating systems to promote their own software, mounting an effective challenge will remain practically impossible.
What may be feasible, however, is to compete in a redefined category. This is the strategy of a startup called Island, which recently achieved unicorn status with a $115 million Series B round just weeks after emerging from “stealth”. The billion-dollar idea: a new type of browser architected specifically for professional use.
Speaking with TechRadar Pro, Island CEO Mike Fey detailed his strategy for bringing the enterprise browser to market and why he believes his firm can succeed where others have failed.
“Previously, attempts at the enterprise browser have focused on additional tools and small add-ons, stuff that might have a minor impact on productivity,” he told us. “But that’s just not enough to motivate an organization to rethink its infrastructure.”
“As we gamed it out, we quickly realized the power of having full control of the browser and what it could do to revolutionize how we think about security, IT and productivity for the enterprise.”
A gap in the market
Although rarely considered in such terms, web browsers are a fundamental part of every company’s software arsenal, central to the working lives of almost every desk-based employee.
The argument put forth by Island is a simple and compelling one: regular browsers are built for the consumer, and are therefore entirely unsuitable for security-dependent professional use cases.
“The consumer browsers define security, privacy and configuration by the needs of the consumer, but an enterprise has completely different requirements,” said Fey.
“Bringing a consumer browser into the enterprise has created a cavalcade of complexities. Once you realize what full control over the last mile gives you, it adds so much value.”
Although Island’s software is built on the same Chromium engine as many popular browsers, and therefore has a familiar interface, it places a number of restrictions on the way in which employees can interact with the web.
For example, the browser limits simple functionality such as copy-and-paste, screen capture and downloads, and restricts the kinds of extensions that can be installed and domains visited.
Separately, the service allows for business logic and robotic process automation (RPA) to be built directly into the browser itself, and gives IT teams oversight of all deployments to help identify the source of problems swiftly.
The key differentiator, however, is the opportunity for Island to simplify the security stack by replacing various legacy technologies, Fey explained.
On top of regular web browsing functionality, the service effectively does away with the need for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and data loss prevention (DLP), enabling secure remote work and bring-you-own-device (BYOD) scenarios.
“The main reason to [use VDI] in a cloud-centric world is because you’re worried about the data leaking out of the browser, onto a foreign desktop. But in our case, the browser itself controls that data flow,” he said.
“We can let a contractor work with a SaaS application, but ensure the data never leaves the application itself. Data can be moved between multiple tabs within the browser, but never lands on the desktop and never creates a risk of data loss.”
Island’s ultimate goal is to provide the optimal canvas for work, shorn of all the unnecessary bells and whistles and, most importantly, the security risk.
The threat of the copycat
As ever, the success or failure of a new product has plenty to do with the timing and context of its release. On that front, Island appears to have little to worry about.
The startup was founded roughly two years ago, in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, at which time businesses were scrambling to reconfigure their infrastructure to support remote work at a scale never before seen.
The effects of the pandemic on the workplace made the need for an enterprise browser even more acute, Fey told us, because employees were no longer working from within the confines of the traditional security perimeter.
Another factor that contributed to the timing of the launch was the maturation of the open source Chromium project, which Microsoft had recently endorsed with the reworking of its new flagship browser, Edge.
“At that point, we had a standard open source project we could leverage that would offer the same look, feel and performance as all the major browsers,” Fey explained.
Essentially, the market was well-primed for a product like Island’s, and the company has little in the way of competition for the time being.
Asked whether he is concerned about the current browser leaders pushing into the enterprise niche in an effort to protect market share, Fey shrugged off the question: “Google and Microsoft could do anything, if they wanted to”.
The suggestion was that the US giants are no more or less likely to build an enterprise browser than any other product - and that Island’s service is no threat to their business models, in any case. But given the strategic importance of the web browser as the gateway to the internet, especially for a company like Google, we’re not so sure.
The other question Island will be asked is whether businesses will really be willing to pay for a category of software that has been free for more than two decades. On this point, Fey had a more compelling answer.
“It’s not about ‘my browser is better than your browser’, because what we’re really charging for is a better way to protect workers. And companies are paying for that already in the form of VPNs, web filtering, proxies, password managers and more - it’s an amazing amount of complexity,” he said.
“The reality is that we save companies money and enable them to have a better security posture and greater efficiency.”
The proof will be in the pudding, of course, but the early signs are promising for Island, which has apparently attracted the attention of organizations both large and small.
Fey declined to tell us how many paying customers his startup has signed up so far, but he did say they include “marquee names” across a range of industries, from finance and retail to pharma and healthcare.
He also said he intends to lean heavily on his personal contact book, built up over a 25-year career in security and enterprise software, as well as that of Sequoia Capital and other VC firms that came on board with the latest funding round.
“We thought it would be a lot harder to get enterprises to reconsider the browser they are running, but they’ve had such limited visibility and control that it’s been a very easy conversation. We’ve learned that the enterprise is ready for change,” Fey explained.
“We think Island can be one of the more meaningful software companies in a long time, and don’t see anything right now that doesn’t affirm that belief.”
Like all sensible executives, Fey refused to tie himself to any specific targets, but he did offer up a loose timeline for bringing the enterprise browser to full fruition: “This will take us a couple of years, it won’t take us five or ten to get there.”