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1.3. Web Browsers

Without a web browser, though, web pages are rather useless. The majority of people wandering around the Internet wouldn't fully appreciate them. Yes, there is the indentation, but without a browser, there is no scripting or pictures. A lot can be said about web browsers; after all, they color our web browsing experience nearly as much as the pages we visit. The decision to use a specific web browser probably says a great deal about who each of us is as an individual. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of any study along those lines. I, for one, would like to see what would be said about somebody still running Internet Explorer version 2 on a 100-MHz Pentium with Windows 95. But come to think of it, that describes some of the employees on my last consulting assignment.

Nevertheless, a web browser is our window (note the small w) to the World Wide Web, and, as with windows, quite a few choices are available to us. However, instead of having names like "double hung" and "casements," web browsers have names like "Firefox" and "Opera." And just as with window styles, web browsers go in and out of fashion. For example, think for a moment: How many houses in your neighborhood have arrow slits for windows? However, unlike the majority of windows that either work or do not work, an added factor must be taken into account when considering web browsers: They are not stagnant. Even though their evolution has slowed somewhat compared to a few years ago, web browsers are still evolving.

In some ways, this evolution parallels the evolution that has taken place in the natural world, with the better adapted supplanting those that don't quite fit in as well. Of course, just as in the natural world, there are hangerson from earlier ages. Sometimes these holdovers exist in isolated communities, and sometimes they're lone individuals living among us unnoticed.

However, unlike in the natural world, evolution in web browsers is driven by an intelligence, or, at least, I'd like to think so. Behind every feature there are individuals who decide what features to include and how to implement those features. Because of this, web browsers can be both very similar to and very different from one another. Let's now take the opportunity to explore some of those similarities and differences.

1.3.1. Microsoft Internet Explorer

Love it or hate it, there is no denying that Microsoft Internet Explorer is currently the most used web browser. In fact, according to one website that measures browser statistics, Internet Explorer comes in both first and third. Huh? Sounds a little like the 1960s version of The Love Bug, doesn't it? This incredible feat can be attributed to the estimated 5 percent of people who are still running some incarnation of version 5, which can be versions 5.0, 5.01, or 5.5your guess is as good as mine.

Although I can't tell you exactly which version of Microsoft Internet Explorer they might be running, I can give several possible reasons for living in the past. The first of these is simple inertia; a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Upgrades take time, and there is always the possibility of something going wrong, so why run the risk of causing problems?

Another possibility is the old "if it ain't broke, why fix it?" reason. Of course, there are different tolerances for "ain't broke." For example, I knew a professor in college who had a car that lost a quart of oil every 50 miles. For him, 50 miles fell within the boundaries of his "ain't broke" tolerance. Unfortunately, the car had other tolerances when someone borrowed the car and forgot about the leak.

The third possible reason for still running some flavor of Microsoft Internet Explorer version 5 is that the machine simply doesn't have the resources for version 6. I know that this can happen; I've seen it with my own eyes. In fact, it was quite some time before Mary Ann, my wife, let me near her computer or its replacement.

I can think of one final reason for running version 5 of Internet Explorer: the sheer size of the download for version 6. When last I looked, it was more than 100MB. This is tolerable with DSL or cable, but with a dial-up connection, it would finish up around the same time that the sun is a burnt-out cinder.

Now let's look at the users of Internet Explorer as a whole, all of the more recent versions, be they 5.0, 5.01, 5.5, or even 6.0. Why do these individuals use a web browser that, according to many, is several years out-of-date? Well, the fact that it came with the computer might have a little to do with it.

The average user has problems setting the clock on the VCR; do you really think that users are ready to install what could be considered a part of the computer's operating system? Some of them know their limitations, and a computer represents a substantial amount of money. They are more likely to give themselves a haircut using a bowl and scissors than to risk "breaking" the computer. After all, Internet Explorer version 6 isn't so bad; it does work, after all.

From a developer's perspective, Internet Explorer also isn't too bad. Yes, it is dated and a little flakey, but that's nothing that we haven't been able to deal with in the past. We're developers; we have powers like Super(insert appropriate gender here). Just beware of the deviations from standards, the developer's version of Kryptonite.

1.3.2. Mozilla-Based Browsers (Netscape, Mozilla, and Firefox)

Before going any further, allow me to come clean. I use Firefox whenever I can, and before Firefox, I used Mozilla, so I'm a wee bit biased. Just in case you've only recently come out of the Y2K shelter, Firefox is an open-source browser that is the descendant of the Netscape Navigator that you remember from before going into the shelter.

Netscape was the original Godzillaeh, Mozillaweb browser, which, in its day, had a market share equally as impressive as Microsoft Internet Explorer's. In fact, it could be considered more impressive if you consider that, before 1998, Netscape wasn't free. Unfortunately, without the advantage of being bundled to an operating system, Netscape lost ground and Internet Explorer has kept nibbling away until the present day.

The Mozilla browser was the first attempt at an open-source browser, which, unfortunately, never achieved the popularity of the original browser. There is, however, an interesting side note: Version 7 of Netscape was created using Mozilla version 1 as a starting point. For a really successful open-source browser, one needs to look at Firefox.

Originally called Firebird, a synonym for Phoenix that led to quite a few comments about rising from the ashes of Netscape, Firefox is sort of doing to Internet Explorer what Internet Explorer did to Netscape. I say "sort of" because the nibbles seem larger. Maybe this is due to foxes having relatively larger mouths for their size. The actual reason is that it seems that when the goal of dominating the market was achieved, Microsoft lost interest in enhancing Internet Explorer.

As I stated earlier, Firefox is my favorite browser, which doesn't mean that there isn't something that I find troubling with it. Consider the size of the download compared to other web browsers; it is a fraction of the size of most of the others, yet every feature is in there. I'm not troubled enough to give up using Firefox or to lose any sleepwell, maybe just a little sleep. Which is probably how my twisted mind came up with a logical method of how they did it.

Because the majority of web browsers are produced by corporations, they are limited in the number of potential developers to employees and consultants of the corporation. Firefox, on the other hand, is open source. This means that although there is still a limited potential pool of developers, the pool is much largersay, about the population of the planet, minus two (Bill Gates and Steve Baulmer).

This line of reasoning makes the most sense, far more than my other possible explanation. Open source has better-trained Bit-Gnomes, little people that live in the computer and move the data around. But this theory really makes sense only after the better part of a bottle of Scotch, so I'll stop here.

1.3.3. Linux Browsers (Konqueror, Ephiphany, Galeon, Opera, and Firefox)

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned: I really don't use Linux very much. The reason for this omission can be explained in a brief conversation that occurred between my then boss and me. It started when out of the blue he said, "It must really piss you off."

My reply was both logical and to the point. "What?"

"The idea that you can't know everything."

After a moment of thought, I replied in the only way I could. I said "Yes, it does!"

For me, Linux is like that. I read about it, but before I get a chance to use what I've read, something comes up and the promise of knowledge fades like a dream in the first light of day. What I do know, however, is that Firefox is probably comparable to the Windows versions, and all of the rest are all open source. This means that if I say that browser A doesn't support B today, by next Thursday, it will, so I'm keeping my mouth shut. If you want to know whether a browser supports a particular feature, the only way to learn is to try it.

However, I'd like to point out one thing: Look at the previous subheadingI'll wait. Alright, notice anything? Yeah, Firefox is listed there. Being open source, Firefox really gets around, which is really comforting. It is a bit like visiting a city far away, feeling lonely, and finding an old friend there.

1.3.4. The Others (Opera, Safari)

These are the browsers that fight for a percentage of what's left over from the big players: Microsoft Internet Explorer and Firefox. Although taken together they don't command a large percentage of the browsers out there, they shouldn't be ignored. It is very possible that the next Internet Explorer or Firefox will come from this group.

Opera, considered a minor player by some, has taken up two spots in the current top ten. And, no, they're not being piggy; it's Opera version 8 and Opera version 7. The interesting thing is that Opera appears to be the sole stand-alone web browser that until very recently charged, although a free version was available for those willing to tolerate advertisements. In this day of "free" web browsers, any browser that charged and survived definitely deserves a closer look.

A relative newcomer, Apple Computer's Safari is, at least, according to the specs and everything I've heard from Mac worshippers, a solid featurepacked browser. Although Apple is currently only a minor player in the computing world, excluding the iPod, its ease-of-use is bound to keep it going for the foreseeable future. So Safari shouldn't lightly be ignored.

In addition to the aforementioned web browsers, there are a slew of others with much smaller user bases. These relative unknowns include browsers for the visually impaired, text-only browsers, and browsers that run on mobile devices. Unfortunately, having used Microsoft's Pocket Internet Explorer 2002 (PIE), I really wouldn't expect much in the way of Ajax support in the near future.

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