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    Resumption of Internet browser wars benefiting consumers

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2009 First published in Business in Vancouver 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.

    The pioneering 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.

    While 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).

    In 2008, 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.

    Adobe’s Flash evolved from a technique for displaying annoying animated splash pages to a tool for creating rich multimedia online environments. And JavaScript, once a web development frill for creating online drop-down 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 Javascript has become critical – and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, despite the belated 2006 release of IE7, has fallen far behind its competitors.

    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 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).

    Microsoft claims IE8 loads many common websites as quickly as the competition. Third-party testing of the JavaScript used in popular web apps, 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 JavaScript performance, which increases their lead over IE8.

    Some 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.

    While browser 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. •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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