Browser war, revisited.

How do I remember those days back some years… The Linux kernel still was at a version somewhere close to 2.2, GNU/Linux as an operating system still was “underground” and not something worth considering for everyday desktop usage for most people, and Web 2.0 still was far from being at the horizont… which, in some ways, was quite good, because, if running GNU/Linux or any other Unix operating system, there was only one browser you might want to use if you wanted to visit all the fancy new sites showing images and animations and possibly using content requiring plug-ins to be displayedd. This browser used to be Netscape Communicator 4.x, a big, slow, memory-eating, clumsy-looking beast no one probably really wanted to use, but these days there simply was no choice (not talking about text-mode browsers like lynx. Exclusively running Unix these days was a good chance to miss what nowadays is known as the Browser War, or, should I say, the “first” browser war… Why that “first”? Read on…

These days, the “first” browser war was all about Microsoft vs. Netscape. Netscape browsers used to have quite a market share those days, and Microsoft, not for the first time in their history and probably not for the last time, up to then had completely missed an arising technology (the internet and everything related to it). But Microsoft (the “bad Microsoft”, as Paul Thurrot used to write in an article I already quoted somewhere in here, earlier), these days, did it as they usually do things: Create a piece of software which is not that outstanding, and then bundle it with the MS Windows operating system in order to get it to the people. Though this concept seems to be kind of “brute force” and not likely to succeed in any other market (imagine a manufacturer of CD players selling his hardware “pre-installed” [read: loaded] with a CD, say, by Tokio Hotel – people just would laugh and get remove that media as soon as somehow possible), it worked out well in the software world. It probably worked out well because suddenly computers started arising from being a toy for “geeks” and technical freaks to being a toy for a wide, mass-consumer market. It probably worked out well because people just didn’t have a clue what software is all about, because people subscribed to the idea of Microsoft marketing that Windows “invented Internet and E-Mail” by adding MS Internet Explorer and Outlook Express to the Windows operating system for the first time, starting with Windows 98. Right here, we aren’t talking about why people didn’t change to something else, say, Netscape – we’re talking about whether or not people even knew alternatives existed. For a lot of users, I think that this just didn’t happen to be the case. This way, Microsoft won the first “browser war” – by force-feeding MSIE to each user of MS Windows and in turns stuffing MS Windows down each PC buyers throat as “pre-installed OEM operating system”, IE got spread far and wide within the wink of an eye, this way also showing proof that, in computer and software technology, it’s not always the best product to be most widely adopted.

This way, as pointed out, Microsoft won the first browser war, ending in the demise of Netscape as a browser manufacturer, being bought by AOL. The Netscape Communicator source code was released under an open-source license in 1998 and grew to new life named Mozilla, moving on trying to be a browser alternative to MSIE and “old” Netscape Communicator, being around for quite a while and not that much estimated by MS Windows users these days… until in early 2004, the name Firefox appeared for the first time, and probably being the right piece of software at the right time.
Then and now, quite some people using MSIE atop Windows more and more got fed up with the idea of running a huge, deeply-integrated piece of browser software which was / is (a) prone to bugs, exploits and viruses of all kind, having ActiveX controls around to make things even worse, and (b) not complying to most of the web standards like XHTML, CSS and the like that suddenly used to be around in days of early Web 2.0 (as a matter of fact, even by 2006 MSIE for example still is unable of displaying semi-transparent PNG images, let aside SVG vector graphics even in its most basic form).

So, Firefox was the right tool at the right time, being adopted in an amazingly fast way, spread far and wide incredibly fast (see the W3School statistic for numbers), suddenly being known even outside the internet tech crowd. Right now, things aren’t too bad about this, there is a widespread and active Firefox user community trying to convince users to switch away from MSIE to a browser which is faster, more secure, probably more stable and available on all operating system platforms not just MS Windows. Likewise, there literally are dozens of sites showing users opinion on MSIE, and their names speak for themselves: explorer-destroyer, Kill Bill’s Browser, Stop Using Internet Explorer, StopIE, and the list could be extended as desired… Even a campaign like Too Cool For IE, initially meant to be a joke, got adopted incredibly fast, started living its own life on several pages all across Web 2.0

So far, so good? Probably not, things rarely are that easy in technology. MS Windows Vista is looming at the horizon, and so is MSIE 7.0, which again will not be adequately compliant to most web standards, which once again will be deeply integrated into the new operating system, which once again will help this virus spread around amongst those to buy machines pre-installed with Windows Vista. At a certain point, this is just disillusioning – doing web design using approved standards is likely to be impossible in the future same as it used to be impossible in the past, because even a global company like Microsoft ist unable of doing what people like the Firefox crowd did – building a decent, usable browser adhering to standards, lacking any “proprietary” extensions and features. It seems that, after all, there is the “second” browser war, and I really wonder where on earth might be the problem about some competition in this market. After all, that’s what it should be about WWW, that’s where we need browsers and standards for – to enable people of accessing content no matter which tool on which platform they use. Using MSIE and a web “optimized for MSIE”, this idea is slowly damaged towards a technology Microsoft neither invented nor initally really supported but right now is struggling to control far and wide, as they try to control almost every technology in reach. There still are reasons not to use MS Internet Explorer, and that’s why, overally, I hope that even with MSIE 7.0 around, the Firefox crowd will be able to gain some success… I’ll support this as good as somehow possible.