The Browser Wars

Ever since Netscape took on Mosaic in 1994, companies have been duking it out for domination in the browser marketplace. We relive the biggest and best of the great browser

September 14, 2006

9 Min Read
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In the beginning was WorldWideWeb. Developed by Tim Berners-Lee, the world's first Web browser was developed on and written specifically for the NeXT platform -- in other words, it was not something many people could take advantage of.

Other browsers soon followed -- www, Erwise, Midas, ViolaWWW, Cello, and more. But the browser that really kick-started the Web was Mosaic, released in 1993. Written by Mark Andreessen and Eric Bina at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), Mosaic was the first Web browser to successfully integrate text and graphics in the same window. Although originally written for the Unix platform, the browser was soon translated into Mac and Windows versions, making the Web accessible to a broad audience. Users began flocking to the Web, and Mosaic was the best way to get there.

Round 1: Netscape Navigator vs. Mosaic

Shortly after releasing Mosaic, Andreessen quit working at NCSA to form Mosaic Communications Corp. NCSA fought for the Mosaic name, however, and Andreessen's new company was renamed Netscape Communications. At the same time, NCSA licensed the Mosaic technology and trademarks to companies such as Spry and Spyglass to create commercial versions of Mosaic.

In 1994, Netscape released a new browser called Netscape Navigator, and the browser wars were on. Fast, stable, and feature-rich, Netscape Navigator quickly became the de facto standard for Web browsing. In 1994 and 1995, the upper-case N denoting the Netscape browser could be found on Internet-connected desktops everywhere. Mosaic in all its iterations quickly began to fade.

The Winner: Netscape Navigator

Round 2: Internet Explorer 1.0/2.0 vs. Netscape Navigator 1.0/2.0
When it became clear that the World Wide Web was becoming a vital part of popular culture, Microsoft decided it was time to enter the Internet fray. Rather than start from scratch, Microsoft licensed browser technology from Spyglass. Thus, the foundation for Internet Explorer was none other than Mosaic, the browser formerly dethroned by Netscape.

The August 1995 release of Internet Explorer 1.0 set off a series of contentious battles and feature escalation between the two browsers, but a major factor in IE's growth was accessibility. Prior to IE's release, tracking down and installing a Web browser was no easy task for everyday PC users: Ensuring dial-up compatibility and configuring TCP/IP functionality involved a fair amount of technical expertise. By bundling its browser with the easy-to-install Plus! Pack Add-On for Windows 95, Microsoft rapidly developed a following for IE.

15 Years Of The World Wide Web

Introduction• WWW: Past, Present, And Future• Browser Wars: The Saga Continues• The Skinny On Web 2.0• WWW Pop-Up Timeline

• Browser Image Gallery

Unfortunately for Microsoft, its fledgling browser loaded Web pages much more slowly than Netscape. Furthermore, IE 1.0 was not 100-percent compatible with many Web sites, as many Web developers were primarily concerned with ensuring Netscape compatibility.

In response, Microsoft rapidly released a new 2.0 iteration of Internet Explorer a mere three months after the debut of IE 1.0. This hasty revision added several features aimed at improving developer efficiency and decreasing consumers' concerns about security. The Secure Sockets Layer, for example, was an important cryptographic protocol that provided secure data communications. The browser also included an integrated Usenet newsgroup reader.

Netscape took IE 2.0's rushed release as a clear sign of aggression, and the company rapidly began to make revisions to Navigator. Andreessen's browser, which was still faster, more functional, and better able to display most Web sites, maintained a significant market-share advantage over IE, but the pressure was on. And Netscape's fortune would soon change.

The Winner: Netscape NavigatorRound 3: Internet Explorer 3.0 vs. Netscape Navigator 3.0
In August of 1996, Microsoft released a completely rebuilt version 3.0 of Internet Explorer for Windows 95. The browser included a wealth of new features, such as Internet Mail and integrated support for GIF and JPG files as well as MIDI and streaming audio. (Prior to IE 3.0, users had to download helper applications to display or hear these file types.)Just as importantly, Microsoft won over the Web-development community. IE3 featured a flexible programming model with support for multiple scripting languages. And it marked the first usage of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which allowed developers more control and predictability over how their pages would display.

In the very same month, Netscape matched Microsoft's third release with Netscape Navigator 3.0. Built upon the same technological foundation as the first two versions, this browser came in two different flavors: Standard Edition and Gold Edition. The Gold Edition sported several new features, such as an integrated mail client and WYSIWYG functionality for Web design. Unfortunately for Netscape, this enhanced version was criticized for sluggish performance.

Although Internet Explorer still trailed Netscape significantly with only 18 percent market share, Microsoft had just pulled even with Netscape in terms of quality.

The Winner: DrawRound 4: Internet Explorer 4.0 vs. Netscape Communicator
The year 1997 marked the beginning of the end for Netscape. In October, Microsoft's aggressive drive in browser development resulted in the release of Internet Explorer 4.0.

In addition to better performance, IE 4.0 featured a powerful new functionality called DHTML (Dynamic HTML) that allowed Web developers to implement an unprecedented level of interactivity and style. Furthermore, the 4.0 release also incorporated a number of Windows-wide upgrades, including MP3 support.

Unable to keep up with Microsoft's onslaught of new feature sets, Netscape released its 4.0 browser under a new name: Netscape Communicator. The browser was essentially a refined version of the Gold Edition of Netscape Navigator, and featured a number of integrated applications such as an e-mail reader. Unfortunately, the new name confused users, and the browser was heavily criticized for slow launch times and sluggish performance.

Microsoft had accomplished its goal of beating Netscape in quality. Web developers, technology journalists, and consumers began to switch over en masse.In 1998, Netscape made the bold decision to release the code base for its browser under an open-source license. Interestingly, this code would serve as the foundation for Mozilla's Firefox, which would challenge Internet Explorer six years down the road. In the meantime, America Online bought Netscape and integrated its browser into the AOL client.

AOL continued to launch incremental Netscape Navigator releases, but the application's aging 4.x code could not compete with Microsoft, which also continued to revamp and improve Internet Explorer. By 2002, Internet Explorer would account for over 95 percent of all browser usage. The browser wars, it seemed, were over.

The Winner: Internet ExplorerRound 5: Firefox 1.0/1.5 vs. Internet Explorer 6.0
Ever since Netscape's code was made public in 1998, however, members of the open-source project had been quietly working to build a better browser. The Mozilla 1.0 suite, which included a Web browser, an e-mail reader, and a chat client, was released in 2002 -- but the group didn't seriously threaten Internet Explorer until it released a standalone browser called Firefox in 2004.

Powerful and flexible, Firefox boasted key improvements such as tabbed browsing (which had already appeared in less-known browsers such as Opera) and an integrated RSS reader, as well as a multitude of independently developed add-ons known as extensions. An interim 1.5 release in November 2005 added a few new features and brushed up existing ones.

15 Years Of The World Wide Web

• Introduction

WWW: Past, Present, And Future• Browser Wars: The Saga Continues• The Skinny On Web 2.0• WWW Pop-Up Timeline• Browser Image Gallery

Firefox was just the kick in the pants Microsoft needed -- its browser had remained unchanged for years. Redmond began adding Firefox-like features and better security measures into a new version, IE7, which is due to be released as a standalone browser for Windows XP later this year and incorporated into next year's Windows Vista operating system.

Today, Microsoft remains squarely in the lead in the battle for browser market share, but Firefox has made substantial inroads, reducing Microsoft's market share to 83 percent by July of 2006.

The Winner: Depends on how you measure it: Firefox leads in features and security, but IE still commands the lion's share of the market.

Round 6: Firefox 2.0 vs. Internet Explorer 7.0
What is clear is that the browser wars are far from over. With both Firefox 2 and IE7 due for release this year, the next round is just beginning.

Microsoft has done a decent job of catching up to Firefox's features with IE7. Will those features, coupled with IE7's integration into Vista, short-circuit the Firefox juggernaut, or will Firefox's army of dedicated volunteer developers manage to keep the momentum going? The next few years in the browser arena promise to be very interesting indeed.

The Winner: Too soon to call.

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