Are the Browser Wars Back?

Some people seem to take software a little too seriously. Take the Mac verse PC argument for instance. Though neither platform seems to have any distinct technological advantages over the other, there are those who campaign--sometimes almost militantly--for the adoption of one or the other. Just as there are those who won't trade in their "sad Mac" icon for a "blue screen of death," Netscape lives on. A project which has been in the works for some time, however, may see the rebirth of the Netscape legacy, if not Netscape itself.

Right around the time AOL purchased Netscape Communications, Netscape released the source code to the Navigator browser. Programmers took one look at it and decided--as programmers are want to do--that they could do better themselves. So began the Mozilla project, an open source effort to create a browser based on Web standards.

It was a nobel and ambitious cause. Perhaps it was a bit too ambitious, taking over four years from the first announcement from Netscape to the soon to be released version 1 of the browser. In the meantime, Netscape got impatient, using pre-release Mozilla code in Netscape 6. Though buggy and lacking several key features (such as the ability to import mail from earlier versions of Netscape), the browser did a pretty good job of rendering Web pages--at least standards compliant Web pages.

And that is where the problem comes in. For several years now, Web developers have been more or less able to ignore Netscape when developing Web pages, making the occasional compromise to fix particularly egregious display problems. In fact, recent statistics show that Microsoft's Internet Explorer has well over 90% of the consumer market. Though the government may have issues with Internet Explorer, developers have generally found the browser relatively easy to develop for.

Given these two facts, over time, many developers began developing only for Microsoft Internet Explorer. Though later versions of Internet Explorer are fairly standards compliant, Microsoft has a long tradition of embrace and extend practices when it comes to standards. This means that though Internet Explorer may support basic standards fairly well, Microsoft has added many proprietary extensions. Many developers, in exclusively designing for Internet Explorer, have begun to take these extensions for granted.

Groups like Mozilla, who focus on standards compliance, tend to not want to play catchup with companies like Microsoft. Right or wrong, Mozilla has purposefully ignored these extensions when building their browser. Consequently, many pages on the Internet do not render correctly in the Mozilla (and Netscape 6) browser.

If this were the end and not the beginning, we could simply pass this off as yet one more ideological debate. However, the effect on consumers and the industry is profound with wide reaching implications. This is because AOL is dropping hints that it will be replacing Internet Explorer with Mozilla in upcoming versions of the AOL client. As mentioned above, AOL has already used Mozilla technology in Netscape 6. In addition, AOL seems to be testing the water with CompuServer (an AOL company), having replaced Internet Explorer with Mozilla in the CompuServer client.

For those of you who do not have Web sites or who have not viewed the statistics for your site in a while, AOL accounts for a significant amount of traffic on most Web sites. With over 30 million subscribers, this could mean that a substantial portion of the people viewing the Internet will be seeing it through different eyes, so to speak, in the next couple years.

These users will no doubt encounter problems ranging from version 1 browser bugs to sites that simply were not designed to be viewed in anything but Internet Explorer. On the other side, Web developers around the world will expend countless man hours reworking sites for the transition and, in many ways, relearning how to design Web sites. Of course, one could argue that Web developers should have never strayed from standards, but those voices tend to get lost in the tide of customer demand, market trends and approaching deadlines.

Though standards are generally a good thing, the motives behind many of these decisions is decidedly anti-consumer. AOL and Microsoft are trying to topple each other's dominance in their respective marketplaces so as to simultaneously prevent the other from encroaching into their territory while extending their own reach. It is abundantly clear that AOL has been on a mission as of late to divorce themselves as much as possible from Microsoft technology.

Simple economics also play a part: it may be cheaper down the road to use a "free" browser and a "free" operating as opposed to licensing those from Microsoft. However, if Netscape's implementation of Mozilla technologies provides any insight into the future, it would be that AOL is more inclined to pay their tech support staff to answer questions like "why doesn't this site work" than to pay a couple programmers to build on the strong Mozilla foundation and ensure maximum compatibility with Internet Explorer.

Or perhaps AOL is just counting on the dedication of our Web developers, programmers, and tech support staff to ensure a satisfactory experience for all our customers, regardless of which browser they choose. After all, it wouldn't be the first time a company like AOL (or Microsoft) leveraged market dominance to their own ends at the expense of their customers.

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