The year in browsers

If Hollywood made a movie about Web browsers in 1997, it would resemble Starship Troopers: war, government maneuvers, gadgets, and big, ugly bugs.

4 min read
If Hollywood made a movie about Web browsers in 1997, it would strike an eerie resemblance to the hit sci-fi flick Starship Troopers: dark clouds of war, aggressive government maneuvers, the latest techno-gadgets, and hordes of big, ugly bugs.

Both Microsoft and Netscape released browsers that came with everything but YEAR IN REVIEW the kitchen sink. Netscape was first to the finish line in June with Communicator, and Microsoft followed in October with Internet Explorer 4.0. The arms race, however, took its toll. Netscape officials admitted later in the year that quality had not been Job 1 at the House of Mozilla and vowed to make it so, while Microsoft's Steve Ballmer told NEWS.COM last month about the trade-offs in quality necessary to get IE 4 to market as quickly as possible.

What else could they say? The first shipping releases of each product were rife with bugs--some serious, some obscure--and each company released "upgrades" of their software within a few months of the initial release, prompting criticism from users and analysts that the line between "beta" software--which is often fully available to the public--and shipping software is becoming murkier with each new product cycle.

One reason the schedules were so hectic was the perceived need to get new features out before the competitor. The most heralded evolution of the year was push, which used Web technology to custom-deliver Web pages, software, and other data to a user through the browser. A large part of Microsoft's IE 4 launch was a showcase of channels being built for IE 4. On the content side, the jury is still out on the impact push channels have made on consumers, while corporations are wary of the strain that automated information delivery puts on a company's network.

Browser makers also scrambled to promote, shape, and implement an alphabet soup of new and proposed technology standards in their products. Some of these technologies were new variations on an old theme: dynamic HTML, for example, which uses a combination of HTML, various scripting languages, and style sheets--style information that pertains to a particular Web page or site--to give developers more flexibility and creativity in designing their pages. Other ideas, such as XML, or extensible markup language, promise to bring more order and categorization to the increasingly burgeoning universe of Web-based information. IE 4 already has some support for the language.

Browsers also continued their shift from a cool tool to a key component of larger software strategies. Both Microsoft and Netscape pay close attention to the market share numbers not because of sales, but because the browser is a gateway to each company's server-side products, where the real money lies. Netscape continues to shift its fiscal stronghold to the server side; more than 50 percent of the company's revenue comes from server sales, while 18 percent comes from the client. That percentage will likely decrease further next year, especially if the company makes Navigator free of charge. Internet Explorer is already free and will become fully integrated with the operating system when Windows 98 ships before the end of June, according to Microsoft's latest timetable.

Those ever-present market share numbers also turned into a chance to sling mud, as each company released its own numbers and disputed the other's figures. At latest count, Netscape claims to have 67 percent to approximately 30 percent for Microsoft; Microsoft points to studies that put the ratio at 57 to 40.

This was also the year in which the government got involved in the browser wars. At the urging of Netscape and its allies, the Justice Department charged Microsoft with violation of a 1995 antitrust agreement because of Redmond's insistence that PC makers ship IE with Windows 95. The case will continue well into 1998, and perhaps beyond, as Microsoft fights for its right to evolve its operating system by further incorporating the browser. That addition, the DOJ says, is not integration, but rather an illegal bundling of two separate products.

Because Navigator and Explorer have some underlying technological differences, some Web content providers have chosen to build sites for one browser but not another. So far, the biggest wins are in Microsoft's corner. As Microsoft established a larger beachhead as a media company, it provoked some ill will by making some of its own content--on the Microsoft Network's Star Trek site, for example--IE only. Meanwhile, Disney and Warner Brothers both decided to make parts of their Web sites available only to IE users, a move the companies said was necessary because the browser gave them the ability to do more cutting-edge presentation. Much of the Warner Brothers content is also available to Navigator users, but the Web site's front door has two separate entrances, one for IE 4.0 users and another for "AOL and other browsers."

A little browser gained a small but loyal following while Microsoft and Netscape piled on the technology. The Norwegian-made Opera browser, a 1-megabyte, Windows-only, $35 shareware program, has garnered good reviews and could be more than a sleeper hit in 1998 if users tire of the big guys' software bloat.

How bloated? Netscape's standalone Navigator 4.x, without mail or news clients, is a 8 MB download, while Microsoft's IE 4.01 "browser-only" option is 13 MB.

Other developments to watch this year: Will Windows 98 fully integrate Internet Explorer? Will Netscape's pure-Java Navigator, or "Javagator," have any bite? Will IE win 50 percent of the market? And most importantly, will the release cycle slow down so that programmers, marketers, and users can get some sleep?