& the GII
This page considers web browsers.
It covers -
- the technology and issues
- from the 'browser wars' to Firefox and Chrome
- how many browsers, market share and demographics
supplements the discussion of Networks
& the Global Information Infrastructure, Accessibility,
Design, Electronic Publishing,
Metadata and Search.
Web browsers - such as Internet Explorer, Safari
and Mozilla Firefox - are software that enables
a user to display and interact with 'web documents', including
accessed on the internet (hosted
on a web server)
accessed on an intranet
format digital publications (eg on a CD-ROM, on a floppy
disk or USB drive)
held on a personal computer.
are thus not restricted to display of information that
is on the web.
In essence a web browser does four things. It -
web pages on the net using the hypertext transfer protocol
(HTTP) or other protocols such as FTP and Gopher
particular code and files (eg HTML
and XML code, GIF and JPEG image
that information for display onscreen (and through a
printer) in a layout that is broadly what the author
of that code intended
additional functionality, eg bookmarks for keeping track
of frequently accessed locations, tabbed browsing and
even predictions (based on past browsing) about user
browser may be bundled with a search engine but in function
they are separate entities. It may be designed for use
on laptop/desktop personal computer or for browsing on
a PDA or mobile phone.
Browsers interpret the code that underlies web pages and
other resources. That interpretation - what you see on
the screen - varies from browser to browser (and from
type of personal computer or other device).
It does not offer the verisimilitude of print, which is
one reason for the use of PDF.
Different browsers may not display a document fully or
at all (eg some browsers are text-only).
Some browsers have greater functionality than others -
early browsers were for example more restricted than recent
generations. As part of commercial efforts to 'own the
internet' (or merely the consumer desktop) some were 'optimised'
for variants of code espoused by particular businesses,
notably Microsoft's IE for code generated using
its Frontpage editing tool.
It is noteworthy that there is no single 'official' browser:
anyone is free to develop a new browser and let it contend
in the market. Tim Berners-Lee's initial browser disappeared;
the W3C browser Amaya
has remained an academic exercise.
As the following paragraphs indicate, the past five years
have been dominated by a browser monoculture, with Microsoft
(through its hold on the desktop market in many nations)
having the advantage that IE is the default browser
for most people and indeed has often been mistaken for
Apart from what has been denounced by judges, government
agencies and competitors as sharp practice or anticompetitive
activity that monoculture is of concern because
fosters security vulnerabilities
at best blurs the global standards on which the web
The history of browsers has been driven by the interaction
of technology and markets, with marketing decisions in
practice having been more influential than the excellence
of the code in particular browsers or their compliance
with W3C standards.
The first web browser - confusing badged as WorldWideWeb
- was devised by Tim Berners-Lee in 1990 and introduced
to colleagues at CERN in March of the following year.
Uptake of the web in research institutions, by network
operators and by enthusiasts was underpinned by NCSA Mosaic,
a Unix-based graphical browser developed by the US National
Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and released
in 1993. Mosaic was subsequently released in versions
for the PC (Microsoft Windows) and Apple Macintosh.
Mosaic team leader Marc Andreesen left to form what would
later become Netscape Communications Corporation, with
support from James Clark, an executive of minicomputer
manufacturer Silicon Graphics (SGI).
Netscape released its Navigator browser in October
1994, becoming the dominant player by the middle of 1995.
Its expectation was that it would build a sustainable
business by selling server software, with the browser
being freely available. That vision intially looked credible,
given Microsoft dismissive view of the net (the first
edition of Bill Gates' The Road Ahead famously
ignored the web, reflecting perceptions that consumers
would rely on proprietary networks such as AOL and MSN).
Media interest, government cheerleading and growing online
populations in the West saw Microsoft respond by acquiring
a web-authoring tool (FrontPage) for around US$100
million and release the Internet Explorer (IE)
browser, with code ultimately drawn from the NCSA. That
release was featured in Windows 95 Plus, with
a default page set to MSN - a move that reinforced the
'legitimacy' of the web, gave Microsoft a major competitive
advantage and led some users to equate IE/MSN with the
The market share of Netscape - and of the range of other
browsers (such as Opera) that emerged in response
to media coverage and Microsoft's new interest - accordingly
Netscape's competition with Microsoft in what was tagged
as "the Browser Wars" was lauded by many pundits,
browser users and hardware/software manufacturers such
as Sun and Oracle. However, Netscape's US and global market
share continued to decline, down from an estimated global
90% in 1995 to 72% in 1997 to 33% in 1999.
Netscape came under increasing pressure as financial analysts
forecast ongoing decline and noted that competition from
Microsoft over server software (which MS variously gave
away or released at 'special prices') eroded Netscape's
capacity for major innovation and marketing.
Neither of the two major players gained major plaudits
from some specialist observers, who criticised a perceived
balkanisation of the web through emphasis on proprietary
Recurrent concerns about true interoperability were reflected
in various "viewable with any browser" campaigns,
responding to signals from web designers that a site was
optimised for a particular browser (eg the 'best viewed
in Netscape' label encountered by many surfers). That
has most recently been evident in establishment of the
Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group (WHATWG)
under the auspices of the Mozilla Foundation.
In 1998 AOL
(subsequently to engulf the Time
Warner media conglomerate) acquired the ailing Netscape
for US$4.2 billion. Acquisition was followed by the controversial
release of code that came to form the basis of the Mozilla
browser. It was also highlighted in US federal/state government
and European Commission antitrust litigation against Microsoft,
featuring arguments that integration of IE with
Windows was inappropriate, that MS required hardware
manufacturers to favour IE and that MS responses
about 'unbundling' were at best disingenuous.
Microsoft's share of the desktop in Australia, the US
and other markets continued to grow. By 2002 some estimates
suggest that Netscape was down to around 4%, with IE
having over 87%. (Uncertainties about market share are
discussed below.) Competition came from niche browsers
such as iCab, Opera and Lynx
(a text-only browser attractive to some people facing
That year saw release of Mozilla, later enhanced
for non-specialist users as Firefox (acclaimed
as quicker and safer that IE). It was followed by Apple's
Safari, based on the open source Konqueror browser
(a competitor of Mozilla on Unix-based systems.
In December 2007 AOL announced that it would stop supporting
Netscape as of 1 February 2008. The announcement reflected
the disappearance of Netscape's market share, down to
a mere 0.6% by late 2007.
In 2008 Google launch its own browser - Google Chrome.
It commented that
can add value for users and, at the same time, help
drive innovation on the web. We realised that the web
had evolved from mainly simple text pages to rich, interactive
applications and that we needed to completely rethink
the browser. What we really needed was not just a browser,
but also a modern platform for web pages and applications,
and that’s what we set out to build.
was initially released for Windows users, with an expected
release of versions for Apple and Linux. It is written
with Webkit, the open-source engine used by Apple's Safari
and Google's Android. The browser is also getting a new
for complex and rich Web applications. Prior to release
of Chrome Google provided financial support for other
browsers, notably Firefox from Mozilla, an open-source
Although Microsoft's IE is the dominant browser
in the West, it is important to recognise that other browsers
exist, are in use and may displace IE in future.
The success of IE is arguably a matter of effective
marketing rather than technological pre-eminence, so rhetoric
from Redmond about a digital 'manifest destiny' should
be regarded with scepticism. 2004 is reported as having
seen the MS share of the market decline for the first
time – albeit marginally – with uptake among
youth and enthusiast demographics of Firefox
(which claimed over 25 million downloads in 100 days from
its initial release) and Safari.
In principle, many people with basic software skills are
capable of developing a rudimentary browser. Since 1993
we have thus seen the release (and often disappearance)
of a succession of browsers that include
for day to day use of those browsers (and IE)
are uncertain. Statistics
about browsers, like other internet metrics, are often
a matter of eye of newt, leg of toad – inference
and hocus pocus – rather than truly concrete data.
One reason is that there are no authoritative global surveys
of use. Analysts instead often rely on figures of browsers
shipped with personal computers (eg all Windows personal
computers are counted as being IE machines) or
downloaded from vendor sites. That is an inexact measure,
since many people appear to have several browsers on their
machine/s but rely on a single browser for daily use.
Other analysts have inferred the shape of the overall
user population by examining server logs – evident
for example in the alerts, when trying to access particular
sites, that the user is not using the current edition
of IE (and in egregious instances thus cannot
access the site/page).
It uncertain whether those inferences accurately reflect
the practice of the overall online population in the 'anglosphere'.
Much writing about browser use arguably ignores or understates
practice in Asia – now a substantial part of the
global online population – where many people are
apparently relying on browsers developed for particular
domestic markets and non-ASCII character sets (eg in China).
on Measuring Web Site Usage: Log File Analysis
by Susan Haigh & Janette Megarity notes particular
issues, complemented by Kim Bartlett's 1999 discussion
How Server Statistics Undercount Text Browsers
and Dan Tobias' comparison
of results from three counters.
It is important to recognise that demographics for browser
The preferred browser for some technical populations or
national groups may not be IE. Detailed figures
are uncertain, with much of the information being anecdotal
and thus properly treated with caution. It appears that
graphics specialists – in particular those using
Apple personal computers – tend to favour Safari
or other non-IE browsers for their personal use.
What a MS representative characterised to us as "hard
core geeks" often pride themselves on avoidance of
Surveys on some ICT sites thus indicate that over 40%
of the preferred browser is a non-IE product.
That is reflected in site by site figures; a Wikipedia
article for example claims that Opera (which
some reports suggest has a fraction of 1% of the overall
market) accounts for around 20% of contributions to the
Norwegian and Russian Wikipedia. The 'klingon demographic'
is similarly less likely to use IE.
A study of some 3,500 unique visitors to this site over
three days in 2005 indicated that browsers were as follows
the corresponding period in 2007 some 6,230 visitors used
the following browsers -
Mozilla Compatible Agent
(studies and landmarks)