of Internet browser wars benefiting consumers
Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business
April 7-13, 2009; issue 1015
High Tech Office column
With the sudden popularity
of the World Wide Web in 1995, everyone needed a web browser to get
online and see what all the fuss was about.
Mosaic browser was commercialized and sold (yes, sold!) as Netscape.
Microsoft, late to realize that the web was here to stay, bought an
also-ran Mosaic off-shoot called Spyglass, renamed it Internet Explorer
and successfully supplanted Netscape’s early lead by giving it away and
later by bundling it with Windows.
Due to the competition,
browsers were updated frequently with new features and capabilities. By
2001, Microsoft – having pushed Internet Explorer through six versions
from 1995 to 2001, had won, gaining over 90% market share. Then
Microsoft’s browser developers seemed to go to sleep.
Well the browser wars are back.
Microsoft was sleeping, Mozilla cleaned up old Netscape code, released
Firefox and gained 20% of the browser market worldwide (with more than
a 50% market share in some European countries). It also built a
developer community that has created a large number of Firefox plug-ins
ranging from playful to genuinely useful. Apple released its own
browser, Safari, making it standard on the growing number of Macs
(though its Windows version lacks wide acceptance).
Google got into the game. It released its Chrome browser – more,
perhaps, as a demonstration project for browser technologies than as a
serious play for market share.
And the web has changed.
Flash evolved from a technique for displaying annoying animated splash
pages to a tool for creating rich multimedia online environments. And
menus and the like, has grown to power the wide range of popular online
services. The ability of web browsers to work well with Flash and
despite the belated 2006 release of IE7, has fallen far behind its
In March, Microsoft announced the release of IE8.
In a number of ways, it catches up or even surpasses its best-known
competitor, Firefox 3. For instance, it offers improved handling of
multiple tabs. Its InPrivate browsing feature lets you browse without
leaving any trace – nothing in the history list or cache – when you
quit the session.
IE8 does a better job than previous versions
of adhering to web standards. While this is, in theory, a good thing,
it ironically causes problems with sites that have been designed to
work with IE7’s non-standard quirks. The result – many common sites –
particularly popular Chinese websites, but also some pages on
microsoft.com among others – do not display properly in IE8. Microsoft
is urging developers of sites “optimized” for IE7 to add a snippet of
code to tell IE8 to automatically load the page in so-called
compatibility mode, but most haven’t done that. Faced with misbehaving
pages, users of the new version can manually turn on this mode (hint:
look for a compatibility mode button beside the address bar).
claims IE8 loads many common websites as quickly as the competition.
however, suggests that, while faster than IE7, it remains an also-ran,
with Google’s Chrome leading the pack. Moreover, beta-versions of
Firefox, Safari and Chrome are all available with much improved
have switched to other browsers hoping for greater security. The
CanSecWest conference – each March in Vancouver – holds a Pwn2Own
competition giving security experts a chance to demonstrate ways they
can take over a variety of computer systems. By the end of the first
day of this year’s competition, IE8, Firefox and Safari were all
successfully hacked – only Chrome remained.
security may be an oxymoron, users are benefiting from the return of
the browser wars with improved performance and features. Windows users
can download and install IE8 now – or one of its competitors. Or just
wait a while and it will magically appear in Windows updates. •