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Patanjali Sokaris

Pondering the universe

Early browser wars

Get real, Netscape was not up to scratch

Many seem to look at the early browser wars between Netscape and Microsoft as some sort of early cyber-bullying, but as a HTML developer at that time, I made the decision to drop using Netscape because it just wasn't anywhere near as useful as Internet Explorer.

Backstory ^

I was trying to develop HTML help at the time when Netscape and IE (5.6, then 6) were both viable. Both were putting in a lot of proprietary facilities, but Microsoft's were far more geared to being business-process-friendly, so I ended up dropping Netscape because it was getting far too difficult to use it to build functionality that was fairly trivial to do in IE. It was really a no-brainer.

Since what I was building was for use in the company's products, and not public-facing sites, it was no great loss. As it was, that seemed to be what a lot of other businesses did: built internal and B2B functionality using IE.

Now this was when there were no effective web standards because it was a time of rapid web development that was outstripping the standards updating process. Nobody was going to stick to the then backward standards.

After that time, standards did start getting up to date, but most enterprises had heavily invested in embedding IE-specific functionality in internal processes (because of the poor Netscape competition), which later came to bite them when MS didn't allow IE6 on post XP OSs, and so it was all put in the too hard basket to upgrade from XP to Vista.

Many blamed the lack of updating on Vista, but MS would have known that most enterprises were not in a financial position to spend fortunes on totally upgrading all the processes and underlying technology at the time, and so probably knew that they had an opportunity to focus on consumers and try out some radical ideas with Vista.

By the time Windows 7 was to come out a couple of years later, business had done the hard work of upgrading using standards-based technologies, and so could readily upgrade to Windows 7. The business transformation had been very successful, because US government site stats showed that it only took about 2 months for the bulk of their visitors to transition from IE8 to IE9.

In a similar way, Windows 8.x was the consumer-focussed experimental OS, while waiting for business to be ready for the next version, 10.

In a way, Microsoft's insistence on not using IE6 post XP was their acknowledement that IE6 was not going to cut it in the long term, but if they didn't draw a line in the sand then, business would have happily kept IE6 forever, rather than change.

Get Perspective ^

I know many would like to think that Netscape was some hard done by victim, but they were just not making a product that was suitable for mass business use, so making it easy for people like me, working at the coalface, to make the simple decision to drop Netscape.

These were technical decisions because management really weren't up with the subtleties of making the strategic decisions about the technology. IE came with Windows, but it was also a better business fit, otherwise there would have been a lot more push back from the tech side that might have resulted in more push for proper standards, or more likely a continued reliance on plain monolithic programming languages, instead of the rich assortment of web technologies.

In that, it was all a path in the evolution to pervasive use of web technologies and thus standardisation. IE effectively beach-headed those web technologies into business, and that eventually forced the need for pervasive standards adoption.

After those times, where Bill Gates had emphasised incorporating web technologies into Windows, with the HTML rendering engine from IE doing multiple duties for a lot of internal Windows functionality, including XML technologies, there seemed to be a product shift that pulled back development from IE, and pulled it off other platforms, leading to its loss of universality and eventually its relevance.

I think this was at the time of Bullmer's increasing influence, and who really lacked the vision to keep more than one or two balls in the air at the same time, as demonstrated by the whole Nokia-to-the-rescue fiasco. A far cry from Nadella, who seems to be able to keep several fronts moving in the same direction at the same time.

Standards are good, but without the pervasiveness and effectiveness of IE in the business realm at that time, the whole web would probably have grown more slowly, and possibly more haphazardly.

It is easy to look back at history and judge by current thinking and expectations, but looking at history from the perspective of the time, and how it lead to today, can show us that it was not as bad as it has been made out to be, but also highlights how little decisions, when scaled up, can transform society.

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