WebHype browses 'browsers'

By Michael Eilers
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 5, 1996

By most projected estimates, there will be over 100 million people on the World Wide Web by the year 2000, each using a common tool: a Web browser. These Internet surfboards used to be a homogeneous lot, with one purpose in mind: the accurate display of HTML-marked documents. However, with demand increasing for such snazzy features as HotJava and live video, the browsers are beginning to differentiate aggressively. As the companies compete for territory, they are shaping the future of the Web in the process.

Within this struggle are several big players, and their support and abandonment of competing technologies will decide the course of the Web. The stage is set for a major saga: who will control the Web? How will standards such as E-Cash (electronic banking) and security options become established? How will anyone make money from the whole mess?

There used to be just one game in town: Mosaic. This venerable oldie was the first graphics-capable browser, and appeared on the Macintosh and Unix systems. As it spread to other platforms, the Web grew in influence and scope. Free to all educational and government users, the only people on the Internet at the time, Mosaic became the universal standard.

Mosaic was created long before anyone had even considered on-line shopping or RealAudio, back when the sole purpose of HTML (HyperText Markup Language) was to format scientific information. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications created Mosaic, and spread it across platforms from X-windows to AmigaDOS.

A conservative, solid browser, Mosaic is laid out logically, with a uniformly bland appearance and few custom options. Its strength is consistent, speedy formatting, and low memory and hard drive space requirements. This is a browser for purists: it only began to support features such as background images (pictures behind the text) and image maps (clickable images with embedded links) very recently, and with some reluctance. The people overseeing Mosaic's development are a stoic lot, who rarely add new features; many functions now considered standard to Netscape users are still missing from Mosaic's list of skills.

As a result, Mosaic has aged poorly, and was easily eclipsed when Netscape Navigator appeared on the scene.

Because of its history and influence, Mosaic has inspired dozens of commercialized versions of the browser, with each version adding new features and abilities. Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Spyglass' Air Mosaic are modified versions of Mosaic's standard design.

Netscape is the big player, the billion-in-a-day technology stock success that shocked Wall Street and the world with a huge initial public sale. Now recognized as the de facto standard of the Web, Netscape Navigator is heartily embraced by developers and users alike for its friendly interface, fast operation, and support of many flashy, useful features. Adding tricks and tags to the HTML lexicon, Navigator supports dozens of great formats, such as blinking text and animation, that no other browser could touch until recently.

It is rare to come across a page that doesn't say "Netscape Enhanced" across the bottom, suggesting the designer used features available only to Netscape users, such as centered text or "mailto" links. Tables, forms (blank fill-in sections that function like real forms) and radio buttons make Web pages resemble true computer interfaces, rather than dead pages of text.

Netscape's aggressive approach to HTML began a trend of racing ahead of the standards, and now it is the browsers that push the development of HTML, instead of the other way around. With version 2.0 on the horizon, Navigator will have full support for HotJava, a specialized programming language that will radically change the way users interact with the Web. This, along with many new Navigator-exclusive features, seems to portend that Netscape will be cutting-edge and dominant into the future. Version 2.0 also supports a plug-in architecture, meaning that other software companies can modify Navigator to support new features any time, further augmenting the browser.

The only up-and-coming challenger to Netscape is Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Many users have cried foul when seeing this browser run, as its similarity to Mosaic is uncanny. This is a typical Microsoft move, many have said, and it is easy to abuse Microsoft for yet another interface rip-off, considering the company's history. I will admit I found it very amusing that Microsoft couldn't even be bothered to write their own code for a browser, and modified Mosaic instead.

No one is laughing now. With literally billions of dollars in development resources, Microsoft could dominate the interface of the Web the way they dominate the interface of home computers worldwide. Though the browser has only been out for a few months, many pages I have visited say "Internet Explorer" next to the old "Netscape Enhanced" label. With its ability to tap into many Windows 95 features and aggressive support for video and audio standards, the Explorer has a chance to steal the edge from Netscape.

The Internet Explorer is by far the fastest browser I have used, and has a few slick features that make for clear reading of pages, even over a lousy 14.4 modem connection. However, it still feels too much like Mosaic for its own good, and the primitive interface and limited custom options will drive Netscape veterans batty. This is an extremely partisan browser€it is as if the designers said "Not like Netscape!" at every turn during development.

The imaging and audio formats Explorer has chosen to support (Video for Windows, MIDI) are vastly different from Netscape's options, and this sets the stage for a major war of the standards. Already, Explorer has a few snazzy features, such as "scrolling marquees" (little bands of moving text like LED display signs) and inline movies, which Netscape does not support. This causes trouble for both users and designers, along with the companies that are rushing to get on the web: what browser to support? What format should my movies be? Should I keep copies of all the browsers on my drive? What happens when some poor sap using Lynx (a text-only browser) tries to read my Explorer-enhanced page?

Mucking up the whole process is the war between OpenDoc, Java and NeXT Computer's Web Objects. All three technologies promise to deliver amazing, cross-platform interactivity to the Web, from animation to electronic checking to automated "agents" that can search huge databases for information. It is way too soon to pick a clear winner, so the browsers must support all three to compete. This is shaping up to be a definite programming nightmare. The pendulum could also swing the other way: if Netscape and Microsoft choose not to support certain technologies, those special additions may go the way of the Edsel.

Barely worth mentioning are the browsers offered to users of America Online and CompuServe. Slower than pocket calculators and just as ugly, these poor offerings must improve by quantum leaps to compete with the real players. An AOL user looking over the shoulder of someone with Netscape would probably consider switching in a second. These may be browsers without a future.

This race to dominate the Web is a truly unique battle, with no predictable outcome. Never before has a certain product been so aggressively exported to different platforms, with the goal of functioning identically on all of them. Even stranger is the fact that the browsers being developed are entirely free for most end-users: commercial versions are available, but they rarely have enough extra features or benefits to convince someone to purchase what they can have for nothing.

Many users (myself included) are mortified at the thought of Microsoft winning the battle. Another Gates coup could effectively flatten the evolution of the Web: after all, have word processors really changed since Microsoft Word became the standard? Steve Jobs, head of NeXT, put it simply in a recent interview in Wired magazine: "Microsoft will own the Web. And that will be the end of it."

Yet having Netscape dominate the pack will be no picnic either. Netscape has been publicly reluctant about supporting certain computer platforms, and is dragging its heels on full Java and OpenDoc support. As that company's outrageously overinflated stock portfolio drops in value (and its own executives start selling shares to make a profit) they will have to scramble for development funds. What was once free software may soon be $45 a pop, and the computing public will be reluctant to pay up just to stay on the bleeding edge, when the free stuff still works.

What should you do, besides sit and wait for the smoke to clear? Vote with your browser! Use your personal favorite, and abuse the owners/administrators of pages that do not support or take advantage of your browser's features. Since we are absolved from voting with our pocketbooks, now that most browsers are free, we have to pick favorites through our own channels. Personally, I have copies of all three (Mosaic, Navigator, Explorer) on my drive, and that's the way many of us will spend the next few years, until new players get involved and shake things up.

It is now obvious that the Web will be the place where all the wizzy future products will take shape: videophones, on-line banking, instant shopping and interactive television are just over the horizon, and will happen on the Internet, not on cable or from AT&T. Most commercial on-line services, such as Compuserve, Prodigy and America Online, already look extremely primitive (and expensive) compared to true Web access. They may go the way of the dinosaurs.

The common goal of the many Web designers is expressed by a new buzzword: Ubiquity. Soon you won't be able to tell where your own computer and the Internet diverge. Everything from your word processor to video games will be linked in realtime to the millions of other users out there surfing the Net.

The sad thing is, what was once simple and clear is only going to become increasingly complicated from here on out . . .

Rave about your browser to eilersm@aruba.ccit.arizona.edu.