Most companies would kill for the kind of market share that Internet Explorer enjoys, but just how did Microsoft's Web browser become so dominant? And with Microsoft cancelling the Mac version and integrating future Windows versions directly into the operating system, what are the ramifications for Mac users and Mac-based Web designers? Macworld investigates.

In the early 1990s, Tim Berners-Lee wrote some software at CERN for information management using hypertext, thereby sowing the seeds for the Web as we know it. Back then, the Web was about as exciting as the typical terms and conditions document you’re subjected to when signing up for practically anything these days – and only marginally more intuitive. Browsers were text-based, and proud of it. And then Mosaic happened. The Web’s first killer application enabled non-computer-literate people access to the Web by way of a simple point-&-click interface. Creator Marc Andreessen then founded Netscape, whose browser Netscape Navigator 1.0, which included limited layout controls, made a huge impact on the market, soon commanding a 70 per cent share. The second release introduced JavaScript and plug-ins while Microsoft was still fumbling around in the dark, creating the half-hearted Internet Explorer.

Where it all began. Mosiac’s revolutionary graphical browser interface has been a template for every browser since.
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By 1995, there still wasn’t any indication of the behemoth that Internet Explorer would become. Indeed, Bill Gates declared that an Internet browser was “a trivial piece of software,” despite ZDNet’s Mark Pesce recognizing that, in just two years, the Web had “gone from being unknown to absolutely ubiquitous”.

A change in the air
In 1996, everything changed. Something triggered Microsoft’s war machine. Maybe Gates finally understood the Web’s true potential, or was just out for blood, responding to a Steve Jobs quote in Wired: “the most important thing for the Web is to stay ahead of Microsoft”. Whatever the cause, Internet Explorer 3 was the first step towards utterly destroying Netscape’s dominance. The browser’s feature set matched its rival, albeit by often using proprietary technology at the expense of open standards; and Microsoft had one crucial ace up its sleeve, to which rivals would be astonishingly slow to react – Internet Explorer was now free.

The browser wars began in earnest, with Netscape and Microsoft trying to outdo each-other by adding ever more features to subsequent releases – most of which were totally incompatible with rival browsers. Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium (the W3C) – who since 1994 had been providing technical specifications and recommendations for Web infrastructure – looked on in dismay, a feeling echoed by Web designers, who were now resigned to crafting a version of their sites for each browser.

Microsoft’s relentless battle plan soon saw Netscape outmanoeuvred in every way. The company practically welded Internet Explorer to the Windows operating system and then struck a deal to oust Netscape from its long-standing position as default browser on the Mac OS. Netscape finally woke up to the threat by making its browser free and releasing the source code to the open-source community, birthing Mozilla – but it was too late. In 1998, AOL swallowed up Netscape, and Internet Explorer’s market share continued to grow.

You’ve got to have standards

If anything, things got even worse with regards to cross-browser compatibility and Web standards. Five years had passed since the W3C’s formation, and yet the market leaders routinely ignored many of its recommendations. Three leading creatives decided to take matters into their own hands. Jeff Zeldman, Glenn Davis and George Olsen founded WaSP – the Web Standards Projects – an organisation with a very real sting in its tail. Its aim was to halt the increasing fragmentation of the Web by encouraging browser makers to support key W3C standards. WaSP was rarely far from the press, although it knew when to praise as much as when to hammer the message home when things weren’t right. Shortly after applauding Microsoft’s shock 2000 release of Internet Explorer 5 for the Mac (shocking in that it supported key standards, looked great, and almost entirely erased the painful memory of the disastrous 4.5 release), WaSP laid into Microsoft for its shoddy attempt to bring a similar level of quality to the current Windows release (5.5). “Do they want us to code for the standards-compliant Mac version, or the incomplete – but dominant – Windows version?” bellowed Zeldman, who warned that it would soon be impossible to create Web pages that are accessible on a wide range of systems.

Eventually, Microsoft relented. Despite Swiss-cheese-like security holes, a number of glitches, and a few standards-compliance bugs, Internet Explorer 6 (released in 2001) saw Microsoft’s browser fall into line. Netscape followed suit, with a strong 6.2 release after the previous year’s farcical 6.0 bug-fest, and Opera continued nibbling away at everyone’s share of the market, improving all the while.

Browse to the future
By 2003, attentive commentators felt that something was amiss in the world of browsers. Internet Explorer development was practically non-existent, and sure enough, in June, the bombshell came: the Mac version was dead – apart from maintenance releases, no further development would occur. Shortly, a similarly surprising announcement revealed that the standalone Windows version had also been canned, and that any major new developments would now be part of the long-delayed successor to Windows XP, whose release date continues to stagger into the distance.

Internet Explorer has ruled the roost since 1999, but for how much longer?
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In many ways, this was the best news Mac users could have heard. With Internet Explorer development suspended on Windows, designers can now take stock and finally get to grips with current standards – something that was becoming increasingly difficult as things like Cascading Style Sheets continued to evolve. Browsers other than Internet Explorer continue to refine standards support, and versions on a par with Windows releases have finally made their way to the Mac, so Mac-based designers can work entirely in a Gecko browser and be fairly sure that the results will work across all currently shipping mainstream browsers on all platforms, at least with the odd tweak here and there.

Unfortunately, such common sense isn’t always the way, and the red herring of Internet Explorer’s level of “support” hangs heavy around the neck of many, as Drew McLellan of WaSP explains: “Internet Explorer currently has about 95 per cent of the market, and the impact of this is that management naturally tends to read 95 per cent as 100 per cent, and therefore still mandates the development of Internet Explorer-specific sites.” In WaSP’s continuing role of standards promotion, this is something that continues to concern – even in this time of relative market stability. Despite all currently shipping browsers supporting the majority of Web standards, there are still managers and designers that advocate developing only for the Windows version of Internet Explorer.

Browse happy
With that in mind, WaSP recently launched a new campaign, Browse Happy. “It promotes browsers that do a better job of user experience, of security and of supporting Web standards than Internet Explorer,” explains Drew. WaSP hopes it can raise awareness of the choices users have, and help them exercise that choice.

You might think this is sour grapes – after all, WaSP has continually wrestled with Microsoft during the organization’s history – and still hasn’t gotten entirely satisfactory results, but that’s far from the case. “It’s important to stress that Microsoft did a great job with Internet Explorer 6,” says Drew. “For its time, it was a decent browser, offering good standards support. However, Microsoft stopped developing it, and in such a fast-moving market, Internet Explorer has become a virtual dinosaur.”

WaSP claims that Internet Explorer’s security weaknesses are so severe that the browser is unsafe for general use – a claim backed by various security organizations. Furthermore, those few improvements made to the recent Service Pack update were already available in superior and freely available rival browsers. “There’s also the danger that users won’t apply Service Pack 2, due to the risk of it affecting their system,” explains Drew. He continues: “It’s a simple fact that faster, more fully featured and, most importantly, more secure Web browsers are available free of charge. This makes the argument to dump Internet Explorer very strong – so strong that education of the choices is usually enough to convince.”

You might wonder about the reach of such a campaign, but this is the organization that got Microsoft and Netscape to play ball with standards, and also encouraged Macromedia to ensure Dreamweaver was capable of standards-compliant Web design right out of the box (a result shown in all its glory in the largely excellent Dreamweaver MX 2004). In terms of measuring the campaign’s success, WaSP claims that any single user who manages to improve their browsing experience by switching to a browser with strong Web standards support is considered to be a success. However, a clearer goal is to ensure that the non-Internet Explorer market share becomes a legitimate business concern. “Based on this, we’d like to see Internet Explorer’s share down to 85 per cent, and I’d like think that in a year from now we might have achieved that,” says Drew.

With Mac Explorer development canned, other browsers have risen to fill the gap, such as The Omni Group’s excellent OmniWeb.
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All of this is good news for Mac users and designers alike. The more people that can be encouraged to use alternate browsers, the more likely companies and designers are to wake up to standards compliance. This means it won’t matter what browser someone is using – be it on Windows or Mac – a site will work, as long as that browser supports said standards (which, on the Mac, includes Safari, Firefox, Mozilla, Netscape, Opera, iCab and OmniWeb).

As it stands, we’re still some way from that ideal, but, with the help of WaSP, the efforts of the likes of Mozilla, Opera, Apple, and The Omni Group, and Microsoft being out of the picture for the foreseeable future, we’re at least heading in the right direction.