Browser Wars

To many modern office workers, words like Web Standards Compliant, Open Source, Closed Source, and Community Support don’t mean much.  They don’t represent things we have to be afraid of, so we don’t always pay too much attention.  As some of you may know, these words have a lot to do with internet browsers, and the differences between them.

Many readers will still remember the browser war between Netscape and Internet Explorer (IE); when Microsoft vanquished the ‘enemy’ and dominated the market.  You may remember some other browsers too, there is certainly no shortage of browsers and their history is quite confusing.  Many people remember when the only real choice was IE, or an outdated or dinky browser that wasn’t really much to email home about.  Some of you remember AOL’s browser, and, reasonably, IE became a safe place.

As the internet is still a relatively new place, things they are a changin’, and for the better in many ways.  Web standards are really starting to mature (standards on how web page code should be written).  Web-based programming languages are getting much stronger.  Browsers are getting a lot better.  Those three things really go hand in hand.  Browsers need to look at a standardized code in order to understand web pages, just like I need to know English to read an English copy of Lord of the Rings or my textbooks.  Programmers need to use web standards to write web pages so that the page is readable by all of the major web browsers.  Web standards also allow new programming languages to get the support they need to develop (which means better internet for everyone).

Another great way the internet is developing is its realization of open-sourced software.  Typically, a business will form and develop software to sell to the masses.  People pirate the software, hack the software, and the developers are alone in fixing that.  In the meantime, the users suffer.  This model is necessary though, programmers need to sell their software in order to eat, and forming a company is the most obvious way of doing that, and that’s a good thing.  If that company decided to keep their code to themselves, their code would be “closed source“, or proprietary.  This means that John Doe can’t go download their code, make changes, and distribute a modified copy of the code for his own purposes (legally, anyways).  Open sourced code is totally different.  Open sourced code is code that anyone can modify, meaning John Doe can download it, modify the code, and redistribute it.  Open sourced code typically works in a community setting, where a core group of programmers do the heavy lifting but other people can contribute.  This doesn’t mean that people can’t get paid, money has to be involved somewhere (files have to be hosted on computers so that you and I can download them).  The community who programs the software also develops support for the software, and since anyone can download the software, anyone can help figure out bugs.  Anyone can answer your question.  In turn, companies like Microsoft have been turning towards community-driven support in wake of many open-sourced projects.  What open source means for you is that the developers aren’t alone, and open source software can update very quickly.

Internet Explorer, a closed-source program from Microsoft, has dominated the web browser market for years.  IE has long struggled with web standards, or rather, ignored them.  When you are 80% of the market, you can do what you want (for a while, at least).  This made people grumpy. Enter Firefox into the browser-wars.  Firefox started as an open source project with Mozilla, who had previously developed the Mozilla browser.  Firefox is the browser that changed things.  Firefox was (and is) very standards compliant, and quickly proved to be more secure than IE.  It’s growth into an IE dominated market was remarkable.  Microsoft held ground well, since IE was required for Windows Update for a time, and it is distributed with the Windows operating system (so everyone has IE, even if they don’t want it).  Firefox grew though, and provided many features and add-ons that IE took several years to implement.  So for a while, Firefox was the savvy computer user’s choice, and IE was the choice of people who had something better to do than to check out a new browser, or people who were still afraid of non-IE browsers (which, with AOL, who would blame them..?).

Enter Google Chrome.  Google has been expanding for a while, and with Chrome they decided to enter into the web browser market.  Chrome is free, and offers many similar features to Firefox.  Chrome, unlike Firefox, is a hybrid open source-close source project.  Like Firefox, Chrome supported add-ons, and tabbed browsing right off the bat.  Chrome is currently the most-used browser.  Many nerds use both Chrome and Firefox, and both are popular choices.  Developers tend to use these two browsers, while it seems the general public prefers Chrome, then IE, then Firefox.

The mass uprising of Firefox and Chrome users has obviously come to Microsoft’s attention, and they have taken strides to catch up.  All of IE’s last 3 or 4 releases have become increasingly standards compliant, and have seen new features first popularized in Firefox (like tabs, though Firefox didn’t invent those).  The competition between these browsers is significant, to say the least, and that is great for us.  I prefer Chrome, personally, though I’d definitely still recommend Firefox.  Chrome has some really neat features, such as being able to synchronize across computers, or even your phone, really easily.  It also has a very neat app-store built in with tons of cool free stuff, like games, and utilities (like the weather app), or a 3D model of the human body.  Internet Explorer is still quite functional, but you will find it is a bit behind the curve compared to Chrome and Firefox.