Browser wars, part two

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From: Håkon Wium Lie (
Date: Fri Dec 15 2000 - 03:22:00 PST

  "The resulting diversity will mean that, for everything to work
  properly, it will be vital that web pages and the browsers that
  display them conform to the technical standards laid down by the World
  Wide Web Consortium (W3C)."

True. But most of W3C's work these days is too complex or too
server-side to enter the new information appliances in question. Along
with a flopping WAP, this opens up for new players. Could we hope the
WaSP is ready? In any case, the entertainment value should be high for
years to come.


Browser wars, part two

Dec 14th 2000

From The Economist print edition

REMEMBER the browser wars, when Netscape and Microsoft fought for
dominance of the web? For a while, each rushed out ever more complex
browsers in the software equivalent of an arms race. In the end,
Microsoft prevailed by bundling its browser with its Windows operating

That fight may, however, prove to have been just a warm-up. Now a new
browser war is under way, as software firms compete to provide the
browsers for "information appliances" such as set-top boxes, handheld
computers and smart phones. Such devices are still in their infancy,
but they are widely expected eventually to outnumber PCs. So the
stakes in this new browser war are high. And this time round, the
battlefield looks very different.

For a start, Microsoft is almost nowhere to be seen. Its strongest
weapon in the desktop browser wars-the ability to include new software
as part of Windows, and thus ensure its installation on millions of
PCs-no longer works. Microsoft's cut-down version of Windows for
appliances has been a flop, and the firm's strategy of tying its
browser to its operating system is no help if that system is not
dominant. But Netscape, which is now part of AOL, is still very much
in the running, alongside dozens of rivals including Opera, OpenTV,
Lineo, QNX and Pixo.

Another difference is that the appliance makers and service providers
(such as cable-TV and mobile-phone companies) will decide which
browser comes installed on a particular device. On a PC, a new browser
can be downloaded and installed with a few clicks. Not so with
appliances, whose users will have no choice in the matter. Rival
browser makers are thus courting appliance makers and service
providers, rather than trying to woo users. To maximise its chances in
this beauty contest, a browser must be fast and work with many
different kinds of hardware.

With so many firms in the race, it seems unlikely that any browser
will win a dominant share. The resulting diversity will mean that, for
everything to work properly, it will be vital that web pages and the
browsers that display them conform to the technical standards laid
down by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). So browser makers are
rushing to show how well-behaved their software is. Contrast this with
the old Microsoft-Netscape battle, when both firms added proprietary
extensions to existing web standards in an attempt to lock in users.

Netscape claims that its software, called Gecko, is the most
standards-compliant browser around. Jon Stephenson von Tetzchner,
Opera's boss, makes a similar claim about his firm. The problem, he
says, is that only 5% of web pages comply with W3C standards. Most are
designed to look good on Netscape's or Microsoft's old browsers,
rather than playing by the rules. On December 6th, Opera said it will
offer the Windows version of its browser free. The idea, says Mr von
Tetzchner, is to increase Opera's market share and to encourage web
designers to look beyond the "big two" browsers to a more diverse

This is just one of the many subtle links between the old and new
browser wars. Netscape's new strategy is similarly informed by its
bruising previous encounter with Microsoft. By making Gecko freely
available, and encouraging its use with the free Linux operating
system, it hopes to allow appliance makers to avoid "vendor lock-in".
Netscape does not benefit directly from this strategy, but the result
is to make it hard for any single firm (ie, Microsoft) to establish a
stranglehold on the market. Although the new browser wars are very
different from the old, in some respects little has changed.

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