Casualties of the Browser War

You hear a lot about "the browser war" in the computer press these days. It used to be "browser wars," plural. And before that it was... Mosaic.Mosaic was the first popular graphical Web browser. In fact, Mosaic and the Web were nearly synonymous in early 1994, when the Web was new to most users and Mosaic was hot. Then one of Mosaic's chief engineers, a young man named Marc Andreessen, decided he wanted to launch his own company. He called it Mosaic Communications Corporation. On October 13, 1994, with a message titled "Here it is, world!" posted to several Web-related discussion groups, Andreessen released a browser called Mosaic Netscape, and the browser wars were joined. Today Andreessen's company is called Netscape and its browser is the most popular in the world. But a rising percentage of Web users -- between 20 and 40 percent, depending on whose numbers you believe -- are now using Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer. The reason for this, the clincher in the shift from "browser wars" to "the browser war," was Microsoft's announcement that it would give its browser away for free, forever. This "loss leader" strategy essentially rules out any new competition (what company is going to enter a market where their competitor's popular product costs nothing?) and puts the screws to Netscape. Some see it as a battle to the death, but I disagree. Both of these companies will keep on plowing along. This "war" isn't gong to end with one of them in ashes. Which is not to say that it doesn't have its virtual casualties. The latest releases of Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator (now known as Communicator) are a disappointment. Not because they don't do enough -- they do too much! -- but because more aggressively than ever they do it THEIR way, to the detriment of the public Web.Case in point: "dynamic HTML," a type of Web programming that allows Web page authors to create pages that respond better to users, more like regular software and less like primitive electronic fill-in-the-blank forms. Very nice in theory, but in practice authors will have to decide between Microsoft's flavor and Netscape's, or learn, implement, and support both of them. At least at this point, there's no "generic" dynamic HTML that both browsers understand.Why can't they just get along, you ask? Because "just getting along" doesn't trap users... I mean, doesn't create brand loyalty through innovative market-driven features! If Netscape, say, creates something that Web designers flip for -- their new tag for instance, which makes combining text and images onscreen much easier -- then designers will use this new thing on all their pages and then their visitors will be compelled to download the latest Netscape browser to see the effect. Score for Netscape.One regrettable effect this type of competition has is to further squeeze out the small, under-funded Web publisher. With Microsoft and Netscape nearly synchronized in their development cycles, every browser revision gives beleaguered webmasters a double dose of new stuff to learn. There's no real mandate to use all the bells and whistles, but if one wishes to the cost is twice as expensive as a single, real standard would be. Just as this column was going to press, I heard a rumor that Netscape is planning to drop the tag and fall in line with Microsoft's Dynamic HTML efforts (which are farther down the road to acceptance by the World Wide Web Consortium, an international standards body that companies still listen to) . If that turns out to be true, then perhaps my skepticism will be disproven. This may herald a new era of cooperation between Netscape, Microsoft, and international standards organizations, yielding open software, easy website maintenance, and world peace. Right?***Sites in my SightsMany Internet old-timers steadfastly cling to Lynx, a speedy text-only browser developed at the University of Kansas. Some are put off by its bare-bones presentation and awkward keyboard commands, but at least there are no blinking ads. If you think you have what it takes to be a Lynx diehard, check out its home site (lynx.browser.org). To learn more than you ever wanted to know about the state of Web browsers in general, check out Browserwatch (browserwatch.iworld.com).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingCalifornia-based NetAction watches Microsoft's browser shenanigans with concern, especially Internet Explorer's tight integration with the guts of the Windows operating system. It seems to point in the direction of total control, and NetAction director Audrie Krause believes that "if we don't act soon, Microsoft will become a monopoly." They're running a mailing list (send the message "subscribe monitor" to majordomo@manymedia.com) and a Web site (www.netaction.org/msoft).Which side are you on, or have you transcended the mortal browser struggle? Send a letter in care of this publication or drop a line via e-mail to pb@well.com. The Cyberia website is at www.well.com/user/pb/cyb/

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