Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Begun, The Browser Wars Have...Again

Before Mark Zuckerberg could buy Mount Auburn street and turn the Phoenix into his personal ping pong room (well half of Mount Auburn street perhaps) and before 140 characters or less became the standard to which we “communicate”; there was an epic struggle between two companies to decide not only how you browsed this “internet thing” but how this internet thing was going to look.



The outcome of this fight has consequences to this day, fifteen years after the first shot was fired. You can hear it in the faint echoes of lowly developers cursing to whoever will hear them about standards, compliance mode, and by god, IE 6 – the horror.

Let’s back up. When I refer to the “internet”, I’m specifically talking about, the World Wide Web.  And yes there is a difference.  The “internet” is that whole network of interconnected computers.  When you are viewing this web page you are accessing it via an HTTP request over port 80. The World Wide Web.

Seems less romantic that way doesn’t it?
 
So, this next part about my discovery of the internet is called a non sequitur -- Kinda like if I were to say that I really liked the final minutes of “The Sopranos” series finale.  How it just kinda ended.  I seem to be in the minority with this opinion, but whatever.



So that whole non-sequitur -- I was thirteen years old and I was playing “BattleTech” at North Pier.  When you’re thirteen, not even five feet tall and weigh seventy five pounds soaking wet, there’s not a much better way to self-empowerment than kicking peoples asses at video games.

 I am the seed that will become Jack’s ego.

Kids today refer to it as powning.  And by kids I mean grown men who live in their parent’s basement.
 
Anyway, as I was leaving one night, this really cute brunette who worked there handed me their newsletter. Her name was Cynthia but she went by the call sign “Sin”.  My call sign was “Dark Jedi”.  Yes, this seems a lot nerdier now that I think about it, but it seemed cool back then. You referred to people by their call signs: My favorite was “Mech-A-Deth”… had to be there I guess. Anyway, back to Sin’s newsletter.  I normally would’ve said “no thanks” but she was cute – you take things from cute girls. This is not a kid vs. adult issue.  This is a heterosexual male issue.  So while pretending to read it, I noticed this goofy looking thing prefixed with http:// and suffixed with .com.  Being the nerd that I was (am), I knew that .com was a type of windows executable.  I know now that .com simply means commercial, but I was young and stupid back then and didn’t know any better.

So anyway, this http thing…

What the hell is that?

“That’s a web page.” My even nerdier friend replied.

What the hell is a web page?

 “telnet into my account and load up lynx, then type in that address”
 
I did.

 Impressed I was not. It looked awful.  Why would anyone bother? I mean sure, there’s information about the company, and a list of upcoming tournaments, but I mean – it looked awful.  If only there was a way to make this look pretty and ya know point and click instead of typing in commands.  I’m looking at you DOS!
 
So what happened?
 
Netscape happened.  It had graphics and hypertext links which were easily clickable.  There were pictures and audio, and you could find information pretty quickly using arcane methods like infoseek.
 
This was akin to the original graphical user interface appearing on Mac – swiftly copied by Windows. This was like the mouse being invented.  No longer would I need to type copy c:\file.txt x:\file2.txt.  I could right click and copy and paste.

The world would never be the same.

 However, to call the first browser war, an epic battle between two companies would be a little hyperbolic.  This wasn’t even on the scale of David vs. Goliath. At least David had a chance!  In Netscape’s entire existence, their total revenue never even equaled the interest which Microsoft earned on their cash on hand!

That’s insane.

And as it was in the 90s, if Microsoft had you in their cross hairs, it was over.  You had no shot.  Either they bought you, or they devoted so many resources to destroy you that you had absolutely no chance.

My, my how times have changed.

So we all know what happened.  Microsoft vanquished Netscape. Netscape sensing its imminent death decided to open source their code base under the Mozilla moniker.  Microsoft continued its utter dominance of the web and then with no competition in sight – they stopped innovating.  They stopped creating new features.  They integrated the browser into their operating system which just opened the flood gates to security issues and hacks.

Whenever you hear Republicans talk about the open market system and competition – this is what they’re referring to.  Microsoft had no competition, and what happened?  IE 6.

So things went stagnant for a long time.  Like a one hour drama series which has seen it’s better days but you keep watching because you know the characters.


In 2004 – Firefox was released.
 
It had tabbed browsing.  It was secure.  You wouldn’t get popups every twenty seconds.  Your computer wasn’t completely inundated with spyware by simply browsing.


It took Microsoft six years to go from IE 1 to IE 6.  It took them another six years to go from IE6 to IE7.  Why?  They didn’t have to.  There wasn’t any competition. They sat on their mountain of money and produced garbage because they could.

With each subsequent release of Firefox, the notion that Microsoft held a competitive advantage because IE was built into the OS went away.  This is similar to the “winamp” debate.

Winamp was an extremely popular MP3 player that just about everyone used at the beginning of the 2000s.  Why do I bring it up?  Winamp didn’t come preinstalled on your computer.  You had to physically go to the website and download it – it really whipped the lama’s ass.  Trust me.  So, let me get this straight?  If there was a better product, people would go and download it anyway even if their computer came prepackaged with one?  Wasn’t this the main argument in the anti-trust against Microsoft?

Anyway, I digress.

So it’s 2011 and you now have Safari, Chrome, Opera, mobile Safari, iPad Safari, IE 6 7, 8, 9, Firefox 2,3,4. The Web Kit browsers render pages so fast it brings a tear to me eye.  JavaScript is now compiled by certain browsers for even more fast awesomeness.  If you want to know the difference between compiled JavaScript and interpreted JavaScript.  Load up facebook on IE 6 and then load it up on Chrome.

This is your brain; this is your brain on drugs.

Anyway, where was I?

Firefox 4 was just released.  Firefox 5 is planned for a release in two months.


IE 9 was just released.  The IE 10 tech preview was just released to coincide with MIX.

I don’t even know what version Chrome is on, since they just update your browser in the background and don’t seem to make big to-do’s about it.

Safari is on – oh who cares.  Mobile Safari: good.  Regular Safari: bad.

Does it suck to have to test against all these browsers and ensure that what looks good on IE 8 will look good on Firefox 4?

Yes.

Is it awesome that you have tech giants like Google, Mozilla and Microsoft competing against each other to see who can make the better, faster, more standardized browsing experience available?

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