Browser Wars #1

One of the most commonly used applications in the modern world is the humble Internet browser.It is therefore unsurprising that such a large amount of attention is focused on the current ‘browser war’ which currently encompasses a number of big players, including Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera.

To understand the importance of these developments, we need to look back at the first browser wars which began back in the mid 1990’s, just as the World Wide Web started to receive a huge amount of mass media and public attention.

At the time Netscape Navigator was the dominant player, and had been for many years after improving on the reliability and usability of the Mosaic browser that had been created in the early 1990’s.Netscape had gained such widespread use of their product by offering evaluation copies of Netscape either on CD or via download free of charge so that users could try the product before handing over any money.

Unfortunately the fortunes of Netscape quickly changed when Microsoft released Internet Explorer towards the end of 1995.After licensing Mosaic as the basis for Internet Explorer 1.0, they released it as part of the Windows 95 Plus! Pack and then released Internet Explorer 2.0 just months later.Both companies released new versions of their respective browsers at a rapid rate over the coming years before Microsoft hit a winner by releasing Internet Explorer 4 in October 1997.

After the IE 4.0 launch party, Microsoft employees did what could be considered as ‘getting personal’ by dumping a huge ten foot high, three dimensional ‘e’ logo that had been used for promotional material on the front lawn of the Netscape offices in the early hours of the morning.Netscape employees promptly tipped the ‘Explorer’ logo over and placed their seven foot tall dinosaur mascot atop of it, holding a sign saying ‘Netscape 72, Microsoft 18’ which referred to their respective market shares at the time.

This market share wasn’t set to remain though.Internet Explorer was completely free of charge and came bundled with all new versions of Windows so at this point most users had very little reason to go out and pay for a Netscape offering. The browser was also faster and rendered pages more faithfully to the W3C standard than Netscape Navigator 4.0.

With a bottomless pit of money in the Microsoft coffers that was set aside for winning this battle, the relatively small company Netscape stood little chance.After a number of questionable business decisions they were defeated by the end of 1998 and were acquired by AOL for $4.2 billion.Internet Explorer became the new dominant browser and enjoyed a market share which peaked at approximately 96%.

What happened next is a perfect example of how a lack of competition can often stagnate innovation and breed complacency.With no immediate threat in the marketplace, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 6 in 2001 and said that this would be the last standalone version that Windows XP users could download; future updates would require users upgrading to Windows Vista when it was released.

In an event which heralded in the second browser war, Microsoft was forced to backtrack on this stance when Firefox gained a relatively large amount of market share extremely quickly.An incredible five years after the release of version 6, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 7 which was available as a standalone update for Windows XP, and was also included as part of the Windows Vista Operating System.It seemed that Firefox had got their attention and that development of the IE platform was once again a priority for Microsoft.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future but next week we’ll look at the current state of play in the midst of this second browser war and how it could affect you, the end user.



About the Author - Chris Holgate works for Refresh Cartridges who supply a wide range of printer cartridges at the UK’s lowest prices.