David vs. Goliath: The Browser Battle

 

By Ken Adams

 

In today’s world, the internet plays a huge role in virtually all areas of our existence.  We use it for everything from checking tomorrow’s weather forecast to renting the latest movie to finding the love of our life.  Although it is often taken for granted, the web browser can mean the difference between a fruitful and a frustrating surfing experience.  A wide variety of browsers have come and gone over the past 15 years, and although one competitor has dominated the battle, the war is far from over.

 

Tim Berners-Lee, an internet pioneer, wrote one of the earliest web browsers, dubbed WorldWideWeb, in 1990.  Other early browsers included libwww and Erwise.  These programs were primarily text-only, and at this point, use of the internet was limited primarily to the scientific community (Living Internet, 2004).

 

The first browser to begin to resemble those that we know today was called Mosaic.  A version for UNIX computers was released in February of 1993 and for the Macintosh a few months later.  Mosaic introduced support for sound, video, forms, bookmarks, and history files (Living Internet, 2004).

 

The first commercial web browser, called Mozilla, was released in December of 1994.  Later versions of Mozilla were renamed Netscape, after the company that developed the software.  Netscape 1.0 included several new features, such as support for cookies and multiple TCP/IP connections (Koch, 2004).

 

During this period, internet use was beginning to grow rapidly, and Netscape quickly secured a huge piece of the burgeoning browser market.  There were several reasons for this.  First, the program was considered superior to anything had been seen before.  Second, and perhaps even more importantly, Netscape made the program available for free to students, teachers and other key segments of their target audience.

 

Netscape dominated the browser market for the next several years.  But a new contender soon entered the arena.  On August 23, 1995, Microsoft introduced Windows ’95, which included the company’s own browser, Internet Explorer (Living Internet, 2004). 

 

Early versions of Internet Explorer were severely flawed and were dismissed by a large portion of the internet community.  This began to change however, with the introduction of IE 3.  While it continued to lag behind Netscape 3 in some technical areas, IE 3 made one major leap forward with its introduction of Cascading Style Sheet (CSS) support.

 

The second half of 1997 saw the debut of both browsers’ fourth incarnations.  At this point, Netscape was still in control of the market, but IE quickly began to close the gap, for several reasons. First, Netscape 4 contained several serious bugs.  But much more importantly, Netscape simply could not compete with Microsoft’s distribution strategy.  The growing dominance of the Windows platform allowed Microsoft the luxury of providing IE free with every new Windows-based computer (Koch, 2004). 

 

Internet Explorer 5 was released in March of 1999, sounding the death knell for Netscape.  IE 5 included much improved CSS support and was generally very well received.  Meanwhile, Netscape was beset by more and more bugs, and was never able to recover.

 

Internet Explorer has dominated the browser market since 1999.  However, some say that Microsoft has grown far too complacent in its position.  There has not been a major update to IE in over five years, and one is not expected until the next version of Windows is released, which will likely be in 2006 at the earliest.

 

In the mean time, several new competitors have entered the fray. 

 

Opera, first introduced in 1994, has seen a small resurgence in recent years, and is seen as technically superior to Internet Explorer in some areas, including CSS support.

 

With the release of OS X, Apple introduced its own browser, known as Safari, which has been renowned primarily for its speed.

 

Mozilla, reborn in open source after the fall of Netscape, has developed into one of the most popular alternative browsers.  The most recent version, known as Firefox, was released earlier this year, and is seen by many as having the potential to be a legitimate threat to IE.  Firefox includes many advanced features, including a built in Google search tool bar, a pop-up blocker, the ability to view more than one site in a single open browser window, and the ability to receive Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds within the browser (Vamosi, 2004).

 

Despite the complacency of Microsoft and the growing stable of new contenders, Internet Explorer currently controls 95% of the browser market share (Vamosi, 2004).  Will anyone be able to rise up and defeat the reigning champ?  Only time will tell.

 


 

Sources

 

 

Koch, P.  (2004).  A History of Browsers.  Retrieved October 15, 2004, from

http://www.quirksmode.org/index.html?/browsers/history.html.

 

Living Internet.  (2004).  Web History – Browsers.  Retrieved October 15, 2004, from

http://livinginternet.com/w/wi_browse.htm.

 

Vamosi, R.  (2004).  Mowilla Firefox 1.0 PR.  Retrieved October 15, 2004, from

http://reviews.cnet.com/Mozilla_Firefox_1_0_PR/4505-9241_7-31117280-2.html.