Round Two of the Browser Wars

With the release of Mozilla's Firefox internet browser, the stage is set for another browser war reminiscent of the battle between Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer back in the mid to late 90's. In the first browser war, Microsoft's underhanded tactics led to their complete domination of the browser market. Almost all computer users associated the internet with the "blue e" on their desktops, and didn't even realize there were alternatives. The early Internet Explorer browser was advanced for it's time and did its job well. There was no need for an alternative, until now. Let's take a look at the history of the internet browser and return of the internet browser wars.

The First Browser War (1997-1999) (adapted from "A History of Browsers")
In the early days of the internet there were two major players in the internet browser game: Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer. It was clear that Netscape and Microsoft were heading for a clash, and they needed new technologies to support their marketing efforts and give their browser a decisive advantage over the other. W3C, then largely an unknown factor, had published its CSS 1 specification, in which it laid the groundwork for separating content from presentation. This was interesting. On its own, though, CSS wasn't quite sexy enough. Neither browser vendor thought a bunch of background colors and borders would be convincing enough to win the upcoming war. Both came to the conclusion that it should be possible to change the CSS of a Web page in the browser itself. Hence both browsers incorporated DHTML, the changing of CSS by means of JavaScript.

Back then, the de facto JavaScript standard was Netscape 3's implementation. DHTML, however, called for an extension of the browsers' Document Object Model. Not surprisingly, both vendors decided to extend JavaScript on their own and paid no attention to each other's efforts. In general Microsoft made much better decisions than Netscape. First of all it rewrote its browser from scratch, so that it wasn't encumbered by legacy code any more. Conversely, Netscape tried to add the new features on top of Netscape 3's code engine, a decision that was to have grave consequences.

So in hindsight, Explorer was a much better browser than Netscape. It supported CSS1 far better than Netscape, and its DOM implementation was distinctly superior too. Remember there were no DOM standards in those days, it was every browser for itself. Back in 1997, though, few people saw this. Netscape 4 (June '97) was released slightly earlier than Explorer 4 (Oct. '97) and its documentation has always been far better than Microsoft's. Besides, Netscape had a large and very vocal community of defenders while initially Explorer hadn't.

So right at the beginning of the Browser Wars the honors were roughly equal, though Netscape still held the market in thrall. That was about to change, though. Microsoft had one huge advantage over Netscape: it did more than just making browsers. It made operating systems, too, and rather profitable ones. Not only could Microsoft easily pay for the development of a free browser, but the popularity of its OS made sure that it could easily distribute its browser, too, by simply including it in the OS. And that's exactly what happened. Nonetheless, this fact alone doesn't explain the huge growth of Explorer's market share. If the WWW had remained confined to the semi-geeky 1995 community, many users would have laughingly trashed Explorer and used Netscape on their new computers. However, when new users, attracted by the hype, bought a new computer, they wanted “the Internet installed on it”, no hassle, no downloads. Of course just double-clicking on an icon and starting to surf is much easier than downloading another program and installing it.

Finally, the new users were unencumbered by WWW mythology and did not even know Netscape's name. Not only didn't they miss it, they didn't even know there was something to be missed. Not that they really missed something. Netscape 4 showed more and more odd bugs. Explorer soared, mainly thanks to new users. Netscape's only answer was to remove the price tag from its browser. Nice, but this action removed its main source of income and turned out not to be the answer. It also announced it would open the source of its browser.

When Microsoft came with Explorer 5 for Windows (March '99), it became clear Explorer was not only winning the Browser Wars, it deserved to win them. Explorer 5 was the first browser to support large parts of the W3C DOM, boasted CSS support far superior to anything Netscape could offer, and was generally received favorably. In contrast, the continuous streams of bugs that burst forth from Netscape 4's bowels was too much to bear even for the most orthodox Netscapist. A new version of the browser was mandatory if Netscape were to retain even a sliver of market share. Unfortunately the code engine was already working very badly and it could not possibly handle another major update. So the ancient Mozilla code engine had to be rewritten. Netscape had already opened the source of its browser (Jan. '98) and called on developers from all over the world to create a new, better browser. The Mozilla Project was born. This didn't help a bit in the short run. Explorer didn't merely win the Browser Wars, it trampled its opponent, and then stomped on the bits for good measure.

The Second Browser War (2003 - Present) (adapted from "Browser Wars II: The Saga Continues" and ”Browser Wars”)
Microsoft's complete browser domination continued uncontested for the next 4 years Not that there weren't contestants in the fight, but Microsoft's model of operating system integration proved to be an unstoppable force.

This brings us to the present where the stage is set for a second browser war. Many web developers are sick of Internet Explorer, which hasn't had a major update in four years and is distinctly the worst modern browser CSS-wise (though not in W3C DOM support, there it takes second place after Mozilla). Recently, Microsoft lost the Apple Macintosh market at one stroke. Apple's own Safari browser will be installed on any new Mac computer and will thus replace Microsoft's IE within the next year. This is the very strategy the Redmond Giant won the first browser wars with. In reaction, Microsoft brutally terminated its Macintosh version of Internet Explorer, indicating that it sees no chance of regaining the Mac market.

Microsoft's next big challenge is the release of the Mozilla Project's Firefox browser. Firefox 1.0 stands out as an excellent alternative to Microsoft. The browser does an excellent job of faithfully displaying Web pages, offers a superior user interface, and suffers fewer crashes. It's also highly customizable through something called Firefox Extensions. The new technologically superior and more secure browser has Explorer users fleeing in droves.

There are of course many reasons why users are fleeing Internet Explorer, but a lot of it boils down to security. Microsoft has chosen to run IE like a highly automated factory. ActiveX controls, dynamic HTML, and other technologies deliver lots of automation and programmatic control over IE. That's great if you want to integrate, say, a billing system with your browser, or have Web sites offer dynamic interfaces. But those same controls can be misused or targeted, amplifying the threat from malicious code. Microsoft's response has been a grim parade of patches, fixes, and advisories. In some instances, Microsoft has suggested turning off features or setting security levels so high that they disable the very capabilities that make IE attractive in the first place. But understand this: No browser is without flaws. Mozilla patched some holes of its own prior to the Firefox 1.0 release.

Perhaps more frustrating than security leaks is the fact that Microsoft simply quit adding new features to its browser. The last major feature refresh for IE dates back to August 2001--and it shows. Firefox offers significant feature improvements over IE, including tabbed browsing for juggling multiple Web pages, and built-in pop-up blocking to prevent ads from opening new browser windows. Other refinements include helpful managers for file downloads, integrated search bars, and more accessible controls for managing histories, cookie files, and the browser cache. Firefox is the most customizable browser on the planet. Firefox users can also customize the toolbars to add additional buttons, install new Extensions that add new features, add new Themes to browse with style, and use the adaptive search system to search an infinite number of engines.

In fact, the future of Web browsing comes down to one word: tabs. Users will realize it the instant they fire up multiple pages in a single Firefox program window. Just like that, users can browse a half-dozen Web pages with ease, jumping from one to the next simply by clicking on the little tabs at the top of the window. What's more, users can open multiple tabbed pages in the background so they can load while viewing the page in the foreground.

In April 2005 Firefox had captured 10.2% of the browser market share from Microsoft, the most any browser has held since Netscape back in 1997. Firefox is consistently continuing to capture 1% of IE's market share each month, and it's showing no sign of slowing down. Users faced with invasions from spyware and a never ending onslaught from hackers are turning to Firefox for relief. It's only after beginning to use Firefox do they realize what they have been missing. The feature packed browser is poised to finally take browser market share from Microsoft after IE had such a tight grip on the browser market for so many years. The "blue e" on user's desktops no longer means the internet; it means a lack luster internet experience, unpredictable page rendering, and hours of headache due to invasions by spyware and viruses.

Are you sick and tired of Internet Explorer? Have you grown weary of the constant vulnerabilities and patches? Do you scratch your head at sudden program lockups and crashes? Are you dismayed that Microsoft hasn't lifted a finger to improve or enhance IE since it buried Netscape's Navigator browser at the dawn of the century? Yeah, me too.

Welcome to Internet Explorer backlash. For the first time since Microsoft launched its flagship browser in 1995, Internet Explorer is actually losing market share. Firefox is a superior browser and available free of charge to anyone who needs relief from the Internet Explorer “experience”. It's time to face it folks, you have a choice now. Microsoft doesn't own you, and it's time to make the switch to Firefox.