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The Browser Wars are (almost) Over!

Apr 09, 2000, 19:10 (39 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Stephen Savitzky)

[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ]

By Steve Savitzky

Like many hackers, no doubt, I've ``wasted'' most of the last two days playing with Netscape 6: exploring its capabilities, its (still somewhat sketchy) documentation, and its limitations. Yes, it still crashes occasionally. Yes, a couple of important features are missing (like a working bug report form!). No, I'm not ready to start using it full time -- yet!

But it's true what they're saying in the press: the browser wars are over. Netscape won.

There are four main reasons why IE is now in the position of a cartoon character who has just walked off a cliff but hasn't looked down yet:

  1. It's brandable. I've looked under the hood at the way the user interface is built, using XML. XUL is cool. Netscape can have as many themes as Enlightenment and Gnome put together. An ISP or a hardware vendor or a Linux distributor can take a perfectly normal Netscape and give it their own look and feel. You can put a button on your website that adds a panel to the sidebar (Netscape asks for permission first). Probably you'll be able to do the same with complete `skins.' The UI is just XML and images run through a stylesheet and rendered.

    At 5Mb, a copy of Netscape takes up less than 1% of a CD-ROM, and exactly none of the profit. If I want to make sure that my cool, browser-based advertising brochure and user's manual are going to be displayed exactly the way my designers want, what am I going to ship with my product? That's right, you're going to be getting copies of Netscape with everything from BMW's to toasters in a year or so.

  2. It's hackable. It goes well beyond being able to change the look. You can get underneath it and write whole applications in Netscape. (OK, I don't think anybody is going to write huge apps in Javascript, but just wait until the Python fans and the LISPers get their hooks in.) Think Emacs in mirrorshades.
  3. It's standards compliant. Unlike Microsoft with their ``embrace and extend'' approach to standards, Netscape has made a determined effort to comply with all the relevant W3C standards, even at the expense of dropping some of the nonstandard tags they themselves introduced. What that means is that power will shift from the webmasters (who now say ``70% of my customers are using IE, so that's tough for you other insignificant worms'') to the users (who will be able to say ``your crummy site doesn't conform to the standards, and I can prove it, so now it's your problem'').
  4. It's embeddable. Netscape 6 is smaller than IE, though at upwards of 5MB it's no flyweight. But it's also free and portable to practically any OS. In case nobody noticed, Microsoft's monopoly is on the desktop, not on the kitchen counter or in the hip pocket. In a couple of years the typical computer is going to be a portable, wireless internet access device, and its manufacturer is not going to be paying royalties for Windows and IE. At that point, it won't matter much which browser is ahead on the PC.

What it all comes down to is that at maybe 70% of the browser market, Microsoft's share is not as invulnerable as they like to think. Hardly! Microsoft has had two years during which Netscape was basically in a holding pattern, and they still don't have total control. It will take a lot less time for them to lose it.

Be sure to take a good look at the cliff fase on the way down, Bill -- it's a once in a lifetime view!


Steve Savitzky has been working with computers since the early 1960's, when men were men and transistors were germanium. His web page Interesting Places for Kids was listed in the April 25, 1995 issue of PC Magazine as part of A Guided Tour of 100 Hot Sites and was one of the first of its kind on the web. He is currently the principal architect of the PIA, an open-source, web-based document processing engine that incorporates a complete scripting language with XML syntax. Previous projects have included two C++ application frameworks, a real-time kernel for the Zilog Z8000, and software for the Zilog Z80 and Motorola 6800 microprocessors. A strong proponent of open-source software, he has been using Linux at home and at work since the early Slackware distributions in 1993. His religious beliefs include Emacs and ctwmg.