Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Browser Battles



Way, way back in 1993, Marc Andreessen (the creator of Netscape) was working on Netscape's predecessor "Mosaic." The web was already in existence, but the language of the web, HTML, was still in its infancy. During that time, the Mosaic browser added a new feature that led to the web site rush of 1995-96: images. The Mosaic browser could display graphics within a web page. Suddenly non-geeks started to get interested in the web and that started it all. It also marked the first shot in a browser war that has continued to this day. Suddenly web page authors had a problem. Now that they could use graphics as navigation buttons, how would all the web users with Lynx text-only browsers view the page? Or what about those people using a 24-baud modem with the image feature turned off? Fortunately there was a simple element to solve this problem: the "ALT" tag. If a web page author added "ALT" text to an image, the text-only browser would display the text in the graphic's place. Of course not all web page authors knew about this, or bothered to add the "ALT" text if they did.

Browser compatibility issues like this were destined to become the bane of a web developer's existence.

Enter Netscape

Marc Andreessen, seeing the potential for the web to become much bigger than it was at the time, saw an opportunity to build a much better browser than Mosaic, and so he did. Netscape, then known as Mozilla, was released in October of 1994. It was cool. It allowed you to change the colors of links and visited links. You could add background colors and graphics. No more gray web pages with blue and red links! Of course, if you were still using Mosaic, you were out of luck as far as these cool new features went. Most web page authors (yet to be referred to as designers) would simply add text or a graphic saying "best if viewed in Netscape" to their pages.

There was a problem though. The World Wide Web Consortium is an organization that determines the approved HTML coding standards. While the W3C intended to add most of the features that Netscape included in its browser, they had not yet decided on, or released the new HTML standard that included some of these new elements. Netscape had jumped the gun. Although technical purists objected, everyone else was thrilled at the new features, and didn't really care whether or not the W3C approved of what Netscape did. It wasn't too long before Netscape 2.0 was released with another set of new formatting features, such as tables, frames, and the dreaded "blink" tag. Things were moving forward quickly, and not much thought was given to how some of these new features would affect the older browsers that many people still used. This trend would grow more and more problematic in the future with the inclusion of JavaScript, Java Applets, and many other complex web page elements.

Now that the look and feel of a web page could be (somewhat) controlled, designers began to take a real interest in the web. Many designers were unaware of browser compatibility issues, but this was not a major problem since there was only one dominant browser anyway. Additionally, the typical web user did not have high expectations for how a web page displayed in their browser. If a site wasn't generic gray it was considered well designed.

The cold war begins

"What! Something is happening in the world of computers, and I don't own it," shouted Bill Gates, and soon Microsoft Internet Explorer 1.0 was born. Anti-trust issues aside, the world wide web was now a engaged in a civil war between two entrenched factions, the Netscape Rebels, and the I.E. Empire. Suddenly there were two big players each trying to outdo the other's capabilities. Two very divergent paths emerged. The HTML standard controlled by the World Wide Web Consortium was left in the dust. Just about every aspect of how a web page worked was different between Netscape and I.E. For example, some of the more advanced programming features introduced by Netscape used JavaScript. I.E. decided they would use VBScript instead. Now what were developers to do? If we wanted a pop-up a window, did they code it in JavaScript or VB script? For a while they were forced to choose which browser was best for a particular site, or else code two versions of each page to satisfy both browsers.

As if these divergent paths weren't difficult enough to contend with, market forces caused Netscape and I.E. to release new "beta" versions of their software on an almost monthly basis. Traditionally, when a company releases a "beta" product, it is usually to a small set of test developers for the purpose of finding and rooting out bugs and problems before it is released to the public. In the case of Netscape and I.E. they used the public as a beta test group, releasing buggy, unstable software to general users. So now developers not only had to determine how we would support the various browsers, but how to avoid crashing the buggy beta releases that were in constant circulation. Often they would have to code a web page with a "hack" to get around a certain bug in a browser. Of course in the next release the bug might be fixed, making the "hack" in the existing site broken in the "fixed" browser.

Before blaming everything on Netscape and I.E., we need to realize that they were just responding to a market that was demanding new features faster than they reasonably could be produced. They wanted cool layouts, better graphics, rollovers, animation, and all the bells and whistles that Netscape and I.E. were making possible. One of the most important features demanded by web page designers and users was the ability to control the type and layout of sites. Netscape and I.E. both responded by providing various ways to control these elements. Of course, each browser implemented the features with slight differences, and where a piece of HTML might work fine in Netscape, it might not work in I.E, and vice versa.

The theoretical ability to control design was increasing, and so web site users started getting used to (and ultimately expecting) cool layouts with awesome interactive features. Designers were under constant pressure to "wow" clients and site visitors with their designs. The more they tried to impress with intricate and original design elements, the harder it became to implement the designs, especially in both browsers.


Comments

Nicole | June 1, 2011 3:15 PM
i want to know how long were the web browsers text only?

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