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Web developers wary of AOL switch

If the service replaces its browser technology, it could send tremors through the ranks of Web site developers who mostly write their sites to work with one browser: Internet Explorer.

America Online may be too late to launch a full-scale offensive in the browser wars, but it might be able to broker a lasting peace.

AOL recently disclosed that it is testing a replacement to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, which it has bundled with countless "free AOL" CD-ROMs for years. Considering that the AOL online service has nearly 35 million users, a switch to technology from its own Netscape division would not only upset the current balance of power in the browser market, it could send tremors through the ranks of Web site developers.

For all practical purposes, the Web has become a one-browser world over the past few years. Web authors mostly write and test their sites to work with one browser: Internet Explorer. If the sites work with Netscape, Opera or other small-time browsers, that's a bonus, but not one to keep most Web authors late at the office tweaking their code.

If Netscape becomes the default browser for AOL's client software, developer perceptions of the one-browser world would rapidly dissipate.

"If you're developing, you develop for IE," said David Averill-Pence, a San Diego-based Web developer whose sites include an unofficial site for New Line Cinema's "The Lord Of The Rings" movie. "Nobody I know spends a lot of time worrying about whether a site will work with Netscape."

As the world's largest Internet service provider, AOL controls about 5 percent of the browser market--not enough to dislodge IE, which is used by more than 80 percent of all Web surfers. Still, a switch in the service's default browser could provide a big push for Web standards that might help level the playing field for IE rivals, according to Web developers and standards advocates.

The swap would "strongly encourage designers and developers to author with Web standards supported by...other browsers, instead of crafting sites optimized exclusively for IE," said Jeffrey Zeldman, a Web standards gadfly who co-founded the Web Standards Project.

Developing sites that adhere to standards, as opposed to Internet Explorer, would be a boon for smaller browser makers as well as Web developers, since they would no longer be required to juggle the demands of competing, nonstandard browsers.

Although Microsoft and Netscape both claim standards compliance, that doesn't mean pages designed for one work as well on the other. As evidence of this bias, many Web sites post notices stating that the site is "best viewed" with Internet Explorer.

"If you look at Webstandards.org, they list the various compatibilities and incompatibilities according to generally accepted Internet standards," said Uttam Narsu, an analyst with Giga Research. "And neither of the browsers is perfectly standards-compliant."

Breathing new life into Netscape
AOL's Netscape unit and its eponymous browser, which has also gone by the names Navigator and Communicator, have suffered such grievous casualties in the browser war that many analysts long ago wrote them off and declared the contest in favor of Microsoft.

AOL itself played a key part in the upset, entering into a deal in 1996 that made IE the default browser for millions of its subscribers at a time when Microsoft badly lagged in market share. In exchange, the deal granted AOL inclusion in shipments of Microsoft's Windows operating system, a crucial distribution platform that survived even after AOL purchased Netscape for around $10 billion in 1999. AOL is now a division of AOL Time Warner.

Now it seems reports of Netscape's death have been greatly exaggerated. In a major step forward for an effort that many have long deemed irrelevant, Netscape-backed Mozilla plans to issue its first official software version within two weeks--a release that will come after more than three years of development. The open-source Mozilla group lets anyone see and modify the original programming blueprints, or "source code," of the program.

Further fueling speculation of a Netscape comeback are tantalizing hints from the media giant that it plans to use Mozilla's Gecko technology as the default for displaying Web pages within the AOL service. The company has been trying out Gecko in its CompuServe service since last year and began testing it within AOL 7.0 earlier this month. Nevertheless, AOL has not tipped its hand about its ultimate plans.

"We've put significant resources into Gecko, and it's an excellent browser technology--small, fast and standards-based," said AOL spokesman Jim Whitney. "But we just began the beta (recently), and it's too early to speculate" about incorporating it into AOL 8.0, which is due out this fall.

The stakes are high. AOL's Netscape tests come after the collapse of talks last year to extend the bundling deal. According to Microsoft, that deal ended in January 2001. AOL stuck with IE as its default browser even after the two companies failed to work out a new agreement and Microsoft dumped AOL from the latest version of the operating system, Windows XP.

At that time, Microsoft also began considering folding the browser completely into the operating system, a step that would have dropped development for a stand-alone version of IE altogether. That plan was not adopted, but it spooked AOL executives sufficiently to begin casting around for a potential fallback, according to one source within the company.

"Microsoft is backing away from support for a stand-alone browser," the source said. "If they're only going to develop for a browser tied to the OS, that's pretty significant...It would focus all browsing around the operating system."

Playing by the standards rules
For now, Microsoft has taken a more conciliatory route. Even without the presence of a major competing browser, the software giant has made considerable strides toward incorporating standards set forth by groups such as the World Wide Web Consortium, according to company and standards experts.

"Microsoft supports standards and will continue to do so," said a company representative. "In addition, the company has been at the forefront of efforts to evolve Web standards to benefit Web developers and users--DHTML and XML are great examples of this." DHTML (Dynamic HTML) combines style sheets, scripts and HTML formatting commands to make Web pages more interactive, while XML (Extensible Markup Language) lets businesses easily exchange data between employees, customers, partners and suppliers.

"Ultimately, though, the customer's needs will determine how these standards are implemented," the representative added.

That viewpoint is supported by Web standards gadfly Zeldman, who said the overwhelming proportion of IE usage has undercut Microsoft's reputation for standards compliance in the Web developer community.

"I suspect that many developers who tell you 'we code for IE5' simply mean they've abandoned (Microsoft's) Netscape 4 Layers, the IE4 DOM, etc. in favor of standards...(that) they are mistaking for proprietary Microsoft technologies," he said.

However, Microsoft rivals and developers point to counterexamples that suggest the divide between IE and other standards compliant browsers goes deeper.

In one high-profile dispute last fall, for example, Microsoft updated its popular MSN sites in a manner that locked out Web surfers using browsers other than IE--and popped up an error message suggesting they switch their browser.

Although Microsoft quickly backed down, the incident fuelled allegations that the software giant intended to use its market dominance to thwart the standards process.

Competitors such as Opera Software, whose technology bore the brunt of the lockout, said AOL support for Mozilla-based technology such as Gecko would have an enormous effect on standards compliance over the long haul.

"There will be fewer pages that use Microsoft's proprietary extensions and more pages that use standards," said Hakon Lie, Opera's chief technology officer. "There will be less detective work for our programmers, and our users will experience fewer problems."

While that could be a long-term boon for IE rivals, Web developers said that gaps between Gecko and IE promise plenty of headaches.

Lie, however, said a switch might eventually lead to more commonality between browsers, which in turn could loosen Microsoft's grip over the Web developer community.

"If AOL successfully deploys Mozilla, the landscape will change," said Lie. "Authors will need to write browser-neutral pages and adhere more to standards. Mozilla has an impressive track record with standards--almost as good as Opera--and we welcome the competition."