It all seems like ancient history, but it was only seven years ago - 1995 - when the point-and-click magic of the World Wide Web exploded into the mainstream of American consciousness. In a frenzy of excitement, we all lost our minds, triggering a five-year global corporate gold rush whose after effects will be felt for years to come.
During those go-go years, massive investment was focused on the development of new software to make Internet access a more user-friendly experience and to exploit the bandwidth of the networks for the more efficient distribution of images and sound.
We saw the World Wide Web as the next big thing. Individuals and small organizations regarded it as a revolutionary new democratic communications medium that would break the monopoly of the media gatekeepers. Corporations saw it as the next wave of global commerce. In no time, the Web became a virtual boomtown - an endless, ad-cluttered strip mall snaking through cyberspace.
The Web was made possible by a common set of technical standards. HTML became the new language of a generation. Though there were always technical hiccups along the information superhighway, the basic idea was that the Web would be accessible to anyone through a simple software application called a browser. The browser, regardless of its brand, was supposed to work like a basic radio receiver. Switch it on, locate the station and - bingo - it works.
Well, not quite. Some Web pages always displayed better on some browsers than others. In the beginning, most Web pages were authored and tested to look best on Netscape's Navigator. But soon, due to the immense power of the Microsoft monopoly, Netscape lost the browser competition to Internet Explorer (IE). Today, more than 85 percent of the nation's Web surfers use Explorer as their browser.
Microsoft may have won the first major battle of the browsers, but the war is far from over. In 2002, we live in a different world. Fear of Microsoft, due to lawsuits and the evolution of technology, has subsided. The Internet, now extending beyond the PC platform, is being viewed in more realistic terms and new competitors are beginning to challenge Explorer's supremacy.
AOL has revitalized Netscape, hoping to again make it a competitor. Mozilla, after four years of open-source development, has debuted to rave reviews. Opera, OmniWeb and iCab are also rapidly developing as serious browser alternatives. All - including the latest versions of Explorer - claim to adhere to current standards established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
And they do, sort of. Most of these browsers will at least open any Web page. However, when it comes to accessing advanced features - especially transactional services or complex multimedia - any pretense of compatibility disappears.
The problem, industry experts say, is not as much with the browser makers as with Web authors who build their sites to conform with the popular Explorer and don't test their advanced features with the new crop of competing browsers.
This, however, raises what ought to be a simple question. If all the new browsers are standards-compliant, why does it matter? Shouldn't any browser work identically to any other? Well, of course, that should be the case. But then, in the often bizarre world of technology, standards are not always standards, especially when they clash along the way with capitalism.
The technical gotcha is a monkey wrench thrown into the vast soup bowl of Web standards by manufacturers who make the tools that authors use to create Web sites. Microsoft and other suppliers of Web-authoring tools meet the W3C standards, but offer optional, proprietary features to Web authors that are not standards-compliant. And - you guessed it - most often these optional features work best with Explorer.
Depending on your viewpoint, this is either just another underhanded trick by Microsoft and its allies to maintain its browser monopoly or it's the fault of lazy content authors who design their Web sites for the masses and write off anyone that doesn't use the dominant Web browser.
Web authors who write content strictly for Explorer "are saying, 'We're only interested in people if they use this browser,'" said Janet Daly, a representative for W3C, in an interview with ZDNet News. "That's a mistake on their part. The browser is a basic utility for people, and it's about having access to information regardless of who made that information or what authoring tool they used."
Is it possible the next browser war will be decided by the inertia of Web authors who simply won't go to the trouble of testing their pages with the new crop of browsers? It could happen if Web surfers don't make enough noise and protest the lack of compatibility with their non-Microsoft browsers.
WOOING WEB AUTHORS
Competing browser makers have begun to monitor sites for compatibility and to woo Web authors who are noncompliant. They are also urging the makers of automated Web authoring tools - companies such as Adobe and Macromedia - to ensure that their advanced features are standards-compliant.
As for Microsoft, preserving monopolies has been a hard-nosed way of corporate life. It's an issue soon to be addressed by a federal judge.
In the meantime, creators of Web content should recognize the threat that proprietary standards can bring to the future viability of the Internet. Not all content should necessarily be free, but it should at least be accessible.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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