With the browser wars heating up again, with time between Microsoft and Firefox with Safari and Opera on the outside, what can we expect from then next generation of web-browsers?

In the past two years the web has seen the beginnings of the second browser war. The original pitched Microsoft against Netscape, with the Seattle giant winning hands down. Microsoft acquired licensing rights to Spyglass's Mosaic web-browser in 1995 and Internet Explorer (IE) was born from that code. At the time Netscape had the lions share of the browser market and it wasn't until 1996 with IE3, which was bundled freely with Microsoft's Windows Operating System (OS) that IE started to gain significant market share. While this action lead to several anti-trust law suits against Microsoft, it ultimately lead them to complete web-browser market dominance for IE (96% at its peak). However, with Windows XP being Microsoft's flagship product for five years and no major browser update in that time, IE6 has become to stagnate and other browsers are slowly starting to make inroads into the market.

There are three main 'alternative' players in the second browser war and it is IE's war to loose:

  • Mozilla with its Firefox browser
  • Apple's Safari which is derived from Konqueror
  • Opera's venerable web-browser

If you look on any web-design board you will find posts questioning why sites don't work in IE5/6

In 1998 when Netscape knew it was starting to loose its struggle against IE it set up the Mozilla Foundation (Mozilla was the mascot of Netscape Communications Corp) as an open-source group, to create a next-generation internet suite. In 2002 the Mozilla Foundation released Phoenix, a web-browser derived for the legacy Netscape code. This then went on to become Firefox and now has around a 10% market share.

As Apple started to changes its fortunes due to its shift to OSX it was initially dependant on Microsoft for continuing to support IE5 for Mac. This dependence ended in 2003 (three years after then latest release of IE5 Mac - more stagnation of IE) when Apple released its own web-browser, Safari. Like Firefox, Safari is also open source, but in this case only its rendering engine which is derived from the KDE project's Konqueror browser. Safari has developed quickly, and now has 3.2% market share, despite being available only for the OSX platform.

Opera originally started life as a research project in 1994 for Telenor (Norwegian telecommunications company). After becoming an independent company in 1995 Opera was released to the public. Until recently Opera has had two versions, free with advertisements, and pay for with no advertisements. In 2005 Opera was made freely available. Due to its small size and speed Opera is a great favourite among many people, however its market share has generally been quite low compared with other browsers and currently stands at around 0.5%.

The latest reports shows that IE has lost market share to its rivals and now stands, not with a monopoly, but with almost complete dominance still at 85%. The decreased market share for IE is due to several factors: IE is well known for its weak security and many people are starting to move away due to the amount of spyware and viruses which take advantage of it, its features haven't changed in five years and other browsers have much more advance user-interfaces and finally its lack of standards support - which we'll come back to. With Windows XP SP2 Microsoft finally updated IE6 to include tabs and better security, however problems have continued to plague the browser and standards are no better. Microsoft have also announced IE7, which will be available for Windows XP and Windows Vista, and will hopefully be all-round better.

If you look on any web-design board you will find posts questioning why sites don't work in IE5/6 or why they look different in Firefox. IE5/6 has very poor support for web standards such as CSS and PNG (even HTML4 elements are missing!) and this has lead to a growing disenchantment with IE in the web-design world. As the professionals move away from IE, so too are the surfers, and this is where one of the main battles will be fought for the next generation browser - web standards implementation.

CSS is a wonderful design tool which has been standardised by the w3c and should mean that all web-pages look the same in all web-browsers. Firefox / Safari and Opera all render CSS quite well (each has their own obscure quirks) which makes it easy for designer to develop sites for them. However, with IE5 Microsoft completely disregarded the CSS standards and implemented their own version of the model. This was fixed in IE6 (only if you force the browser into standards mode - which you really should anyway) but many problems still remain. The CSS Acid test tests how web-browsers handle their CSS and should render a happy face:

This test was made with the latest available version of each browser, so we see that even with its next generation of browser Microsoft will not be supporting web standards such as CSS.

So if continuity is so hard to get with CSS (CSS2 has been a standard since 1997) what hope is there for other and newer web standards? Well as I see it, significant amount now that we are in the middle of another browser war. There are a lot of exciting standards available and as the competition begins to implement them the pressure will build on the IE team to support these new standards, both from a commercial aspect, but also from the web-design community and web-surfers in general.

Let us hope that this is one war which goes on a long time!

Scaleable Vector Graphics (SVG) is one of the big new standards which could make waves on the web (indeed I've got big plans myself with it...). Firefox and Opera both have SVG support (albeit somewhat limited) in their shipping versions, and Safari has (again limited) support in development builds. MathML is another standard which will make life easier for many people. A defined subset of XML, MathML allows mathematic equations to be easily described and displayed in web browsers. CSS3 (which allows rounded corners, proper column support etc) is also slowly making headway in the next generation browsers.

With all this competition (and I've only really covered standards) Microsoft is facing increasing competition in the web-browser world and will struggle to maintain its market share, even although IE7 will quickly become the standard as it will come free with Vista. Increased competition is good for us all as it will keep the browser developers on their toes and offer new features quickly allowing designers and web-developers to take advantage of new web standards. Let us hope that this is one war which goes on a long time!

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