A Future of Browsers

Although leading browser makers have been involved in the creation of web standards since the W3C was formed, they released browsers that failed to uniformly support standards, which create and interpret web-based content.  The standards are carefully designed to deliver the greatest benefits to the greatest number of we users while ensuring the long-term viability of any document published on the Web.

This sounds so straightforward and makes so much sense.  So what is the problem? And why are there a Web Standards Project and so many browsers, and now there are fewer browsers?

Early Browsers

Viola

Pei Wei, who started by creating an information sharing system on an Amiga personal computer, originally wrote viola. He developed executable "applets" as tools for parsing and displaying information in a proto 'clients and servers' model. The applet model has recently achieved fame through Java, independently reinvented at Sun Microsystems. He wrote a UNIX version and incorporated Web browsing capabilities in Viola in late 1991, before the World Wide Web project actually culminated. ViolaWWW grew into the most sophisticated of the early Web browsers, and was the preferential browser during pre-Mosaic era for demonstrations by the CERN team and most others.

It was the first browser with support for style sheets, tables, and nest able HTML elements, features, which took years to resurface in later browsers. Viola was one of the primary examples of browsers used by NCSA in developing Mosaic, though the Mosaic team chose to leave out most of Viola's more sophisticated features to get a simple browser out quickly.

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Lynx

Lynx was a proto-Web project that was started as an innovative solution to organize the Campus-Wide Information System at the University of Kansas in the early 90s. It supported documents transfer between servers and browsers via an integrated interface. Early Lynx visions included many features we now associate with the Web without full hypertext linking, including remote access to documents with text and images.

When the original team of Lynx programmers discovered the World Wide Web project over the Internet, they quickly adapted web browser capability. It soon became the premier text-only Web browser, much easier to use than CERN's own text browser, and an important gateway to the Web for people using terminal connections to mainframes.

Cello

Tom Bruce of the Cornell School of Law wrote cello in 1992 for the IBM PC and its compatibles. Bruce was interested to improve access to legal information, which had been computerized on a variety of incompatible, mainframe-based systems. Since most legal users were PC-based and had little access to then prevalent UNIX-based browsers, Bruce essentially rewrote the CERN library for the purpose of building PC-based browser, because a PC in 1992 was simply not powerful enough to run the UNIX-oriented code libraries.

Cello achieved a fair amount of success within the legal community, as well as amongst PC users - some few hundred thousand of them. But like other solo-effort programmers, Bruce could not maintain support requests that is necessary to sustain the life of the program and eventually let the project wither.

Mosaic

When it comes to smashing a paradigm, pleasure is not the most important thing. It is the only thing.

If this sounds wrong, consider Mosaic. Mosaic was the celebrated graphical "browser" that allowed users to travel through the world of electronic information using a point-and-click interface. Mosaic's charming appearance encourages users to load their own documents onto the Net, including color photos, sound bites, video clips, and hypertext "links" to other documents. By following the links - click, and the linked document appears - you can travel through the online world along paths of whim and intuition.

News release NSCA, 1997

The Software Development Group at NCSA has worked on NCSA Mosaic for nearly four years and we've learned a lot in the process. We are honored that we were able to help bring this technology to the masses and appreciated all the support and feedback we have received in return. However, the time has come for us to concentrate our limited resources in other areas of interest and development on Mosaic is complete.

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Modern Browsers

Apple Browsers

Thanks to a host of new graphics-rendering and Java-related technologies available in Mac OS X, Mac users have seen a new breed of Web browsers that employ functionality still unavailable on the Windows platform.

The most visually striking advancement made in two of the latest OS X-compliant Web browsers is the utilization of Quartz -- Apple's graphics layer that provides real-time rendering, composition of PostScript-level graphics, and anti-aliasing.

Opera

The standards support in Opera 7 has been improved with added support for DOM level 2 and CSS2; improved ECMAScript and HTML 4.01 support; and complete WML 1.3 and 2.0 support. Opera 7 also handles non-standard pages using DHTML, giving Opera's millions of old and new users a hassle-free Internet experience.

Spatial Navigation was first introduced in Opera's iTV business unit. With Opera for iTV on their set-top boxes, TV viewers appreciates how simple it is to use the arrows keys on their remote controls to navigate the electronic program guides or between links in Web pages. Now Opera is bringing the same concept to everyone's desktop computer. By combining the SHIFT and arrow keys on the keyboard, users can easily move to links or any other navigational element on a page and Opera makes it possible to navigate entirely with keyboard shortcuts, enabling even more speed.

Internet Explorer

 Microsoft recently announced that they are halting the support of Internet Explorer by not releasing any new versions as a standalone browser.  Instead the next version of IE would be an integrated part of the Windows operating system.  The announcement should have come as no surprise since Microsoft's strategy has always been to integrate its browser technology with Windows.  The integration in Windows XP is impressive and I think Apple will be taking a look at some of its benefits.

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Netscape

 In mid-1994, Silicon Graphics founder Jim Clark collaborated with Marc Andreessen to found Mosaic Communications (later renamed to Netscape Communications.) Andreessen had just graduated from the University of Illinois, where he had been the leader of a certain software project known as "Mosaic".

Netscape quickly became a success, and the overwhelming market share it soon had was due to many factors, not the least of which was its break-neck pace of software releases.

In January 1998, Netscape made an announcement that their browser would thereafter be free, and also that the development of the browser would move to an open-source process. This came as wonderful news to many on the Internet. But the time between this announcement, and the actual delivery of Mozilla 1.0 would be a long road (over 4 years.) The process ended up taking much longer than originally anticipated, what with the Netscape/AOL merger and the late-hour decision to integrate an entirely new next-generation HTML rendering engine.

In the latte part of 1998 America Online, the largest Internet access service, said today it will acquire Netscape Communications in a deal valued at $4.2 billion.

And in the same time frame moving away from its proprietary content design standards in favor of html. This move would not only benefit the online consumer but also those sponsors that have had to create special content to comply with the AOL proprietary system. With Netscape in the fold AOL surely has increased incentive to rapidly move to html.

News announcement, June 2003

AOL has unceremoniously dumped Netscape and its accompanying open source browser suite, Mozilla. Netscape (the commercial version of the Mozilla suite) is dead, Mozilla still has a future; an independent non-profit organization called the Mozilla Foundation has been setup with support from Sun, IBM and AOL (so AOL haven't completely cut off Mozilla then).

The announcement concerning the formation of the Mozilla Foundation lists some of the contributions that have been made to help keep Mozilla running, AOL for instance has pledged $2 million to the Mozilla Foundation, spaced over the next two years, as well as equipment and domain names to help launch the new venture.

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Lessons Learned

 James Governor, principal analyst at research firm RedMonk, said that certain international businesses have not really tried to build "pure standards-oriented" Web sites in the past, instead testing their products for IE compatibility only. "This decision might serve to drive a second wave of browser and Web site standardization," he said.  Certainly many will agree with the statement, especially in light of the recent decisions concerning Internet Explorer and Netscape and the demise of their earlier browser models, which in part exceeded the capabilities of modern browsers.

Competing standards, which resulted in proprietary code and competing forces, which, by their threat to tear the web apart into fragmented incompatible pieces, force companies toward common specifications, where common specifications are essential.  This competition, which is a great force toward innovation, would not be happening if it were not building on a base of HTTP, URL and HTML standards.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the role of the browser is being pared back to the essential but none too exciting function of reading HTML code.  Today, the browser wares are history, and innovation has moved to other fronts, with the development of applications specialized for Internet tasks ranging from Extensible Markup Language (XML), news feeds and sharing of music files.  The question for the browser then becomes what form it will take as the Internet is used increasingly for functions that go beyond simply reading Web pages.  The message is that the Web browser is not designed for applications, rather for its core duty to read and display documents.  None of this means that the browser will disappear anytime soon.  It will likely remain the all-purpose workhorse for viewing Web content for the foreseeable future.

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Fighting for Standards Using Today's Browsers

Designing and building with standards simplifies and lowers the cost of production, while delivering sites that are accessible to more people and more types of Internet devices.  Sites developed along these lines will continue to function correctly as traditional desktop browsers evolve, and as new Internet devices come to the market.  Webmasters and Webmisteresses who saw the benefits became increasing in number, in part because of the job market conditions and dwindling development money, which fueled the current mentality of not continuing practices of the past, when money and the economy were in full swing.

Lack of uniform support for W3C standards left consumers frustrated: when using the "wrong" browser, many could not view content or perform desired transactions.  At the same time, developers and site owners could not afford to implement multiple versions of every web page in order to accommodate incompatible browsers. Some designers, stymied by browser incompatibility, deliberately excluded all but the newest or oldest browsers and technologies

Future proofing of web sites is a often heard when mentioning W3C standards and while this concept holds promise, the real world has not yet kept up with the promise, so we personally will hold to the HTML 4.l standards, dabble with XML, know that strict HTML and CSS paves the way to XML, that XHTML is an XML compatible version of HTML and leverage in the near future: SWG-scalable vector graphics, MathML-to manipulate mathematical equations, XSLT to transform date in to an XML-language into another, for these XML technologies have been built around interoperability. 

We also know from actual experience of others that separating presentation from content augments the information/markup ratio, since most search engines rely on text placed on top of the page, using standards such as CSS and give such web pages a higher rank.

We also know that content may be king, but standards provide the framework and future compatibility that drives the web.  Browsers must  be written to gracefully work around our errors, and there is not guarantee that it will work later.  The bottom line is there are times to go to standards, but keep them properly defined and only step outside those bounds with very good reasons, because the development and wide acceptance of common reference architecture is crucial to the success of the web.

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The Standards Struggle

The struggle between online developers of websites is being felt all over, from folks who design for fun and pleasure and those do design for a living.  With so much at stake, two of the premier standards-setting bodies, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), have gotten into a standards war, according to some analysis's, and the lines are blurring over who controls standards.

OASIS  is the newer standards-setting body that focuses on electronic business and handles the UDDI standard, for example, among others.

Most analysts believe that competing standards between the governing bodies, web developers and online personal web page builders slows down the accepted technology, slows down the development and implementation of standards and in the long run has the potential to hurt both users and vendors.

While the standards-setting bodies walk a thin line, they want to wield as much influence as possible and do not want to be seen as agreeing to proprietary standards.  There are frequent joint projects although they serve different purposes, and that in general the W3C has a broader focus on the underlying Internet architecture, while OASIS is higher up on the foot chain with e business and the business community.

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Reasons to Wait Upgrading

Perhaps the most valid reason to wait is the steep learning curve.  When a novice Webmaster or mistress had entered into web building with some of the more popular WYSIWYG editors and have built excellent creations, there was no need to know HTML code, especially what was compliant or not.  Satisfied with these creations and no negative feedback from visitors, any reasons for making a change are not apparent.  If per chance a visitor may suggest that the author makes their web site creation with validated HTML, the reasons and advantages often escape understanding or do not seem relevant.  What we authors need in these cases are real world examples and testimonials from our peer group, which may entice us to make the first steps toward validated HTML, coded creations.

Targeted audiences or viewers may be another valid reason to wait, for those who would benefit most from our compliant code, may not be visiting our web site creations or we are not aware that they can not see, hear, navigate or understand our creation. Or if we track our visitors we see no decline in visits and have no reason to make a change.

No matter who are our targeted audiences, the lower cost of publication means that our time and efforts, especially when we are part time Webmasters or mistresses, can be directed toward more effective presentations, which reach everyone.  This is possible when we employ standards and CSS.

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Conclusions

Education and persuasion based on personal experiences are perhaps the tools, which in the long run will determine our browser preference or reasons to make or not make a change to compliant HTML creations.  But we, like the World Wide Web are not static, but dynamic and whether we realize it or not are in a continuing stage of education and reeducation.  So let us keep an open mind and give support to change, but not change just for the sake of change.

References:

ZDNet, Browser White Papers.

ZDNet, Anchor Desk.

The Future Web Browser.

McIntosh Web Browser Future.

Browser Timelines.

W3C.

Viewable In Any Browse.

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AS Article Contributor.