Jul
16
2010

How the Browser War is Never Won

I first got on the internet in 1997, and began designing webpages in the early months of 1998.  It was a good time to be getting into design, as one could pretty much learn all html in a day.  Back in the days of phone modems and slow processors there wasn’t too much to web mark-up. Design was easy to learn, though a bit boring as there wasn’t much to do with it.

How We See What We See on the Internet

Mark-up is the wonderful stuff that makes webpages look the way they do. Mark-up is how we see different fonts, colors, images, and page layouts. Back in 1997 we as designers were a bit limited in how we could make pages appear. As browsing technology advanced there was competition between browsers to have the best features.

So a page goes from being a file to website’s server to be downloaded by the user’s computer.  Then it is viewed in the user’s browser.  This is where it gets tricky.  Apples and Windows are written differently, and each operating system can load many different browsers.  Every browser on every operating system independently takes the web page file, reads it, and turns it into what you see on the page.  No browser is guaranteed to read the file the same, so what you see on your screen might be different.

Even in the beginning of web development this caused problems.  Sadly as the net evolved this problem has never been completely solved.

To meet the demand for more complicated page design and useful mark-up Cascading Style Sheets were developed.  Though the standards were written in the winter of 1996, full implementation has yet to be achieved by any browser.  More complicated mark-up meant more complicated page rendering.  Browsers often could not render the same command in the same way.

How the Wars Began

At the same time web designers are like children.  We love new toys.  If a code exists that can turn text upside, flip the colors inside out, and make it glow; we want it.  The programmers writing the browsers know this and began releasing their own css that went outside the standard.  So a web developer designing a page for Internet Explorer could create all sorts neat effects like glowing text, and drop shadows.  However, those effects could only be seen when the user opened the page in Internet Explorer.  If they used Netscape these effects wouldn’t be visible and the page would look like crap.

To make things even more interesting the way an effect was rendered in one browser may not be possible in another depending on how it was coded.  So it was impossible for Netscape to copy proprietary IE codes, and vice versa.  Also, note the term proprietary, when a browser made a neat non-standard code they owned it, another browser could not copy it.

Yet, asking a web developer to put away their cool new tools, and take out the old run of the mill building blocks from last Christmas is not an easy task.  These new effects were on the web to stay, and more users wanted to see them.

This has killed many a browser that could not keep up with rendering pretty new effects that everyone could see.  This is part of the reason why there is no more Opera(well almost!) or Netscape.

The Dawn of Open Source Browsing

By 2002 Netscape was taking its last breaths.  The private company could not keep up with the even bigger private company Microsoft.  To survive Netscape first went open source in 1998 and was later acquired by AOL.  In Netscape’s death throes AOL created the non-profit Mozilla Foundation  By the way, Firefox is a Mozilla browser and one of its early release names was Phoenix.

The open source development with Mozilla allowed programmers from across the world to work on the browser, work out bugs, and create new features.  This reignited competition with Internet Explorer that goes on even today.

The open source browser movement is keeping life interesting 7 years later (which might as a well be a century in internet time). Currently most browsers run on either the Trident (IE), Mozilla (Firefox), or Webkit (Safari,Chrome) rendering engines. While the Internet Explorer is becoming less prevalent, us designs still have 3 engines to tango with when designing webpages.

Relevant Websites

How you see webpages

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