Mozilla rising

Netscape won't dislodge Internet Explorer from its hegemony over browser space. But its open-source sibling is aiming at even bigger game: Windows.

Published September 10, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

On Aug. 28, WebSideStory, a firm that keeps statistics on the software that people use online, released some numbers confirming what most Web surfers who think about such things already know: Almost nobody uses the Netscape Navigator Web browser. WebSideStory reported that Netscape, the company many people credit with sparking the Internet revolution, is now forlorn in the world it helped create, claiming only 3.4 percent of the world's Web users.

That's a stunning decline from just a year ago, when Netscape had a 13 percent share -- and especially from the company's heights of the mid-1990s, when virtually everyone used its browser. But now, 96 percent of the people online use Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and it's likely that Netscape will lose even more ground in the future, according to WebSideStory.

"The browser war," said one of the firm's executives in its press release, "is in fact a massacre."

Netscape doesn't believe those numbers; a company representative said that other studies have put Netscape's share in the double digits. But the survey nevertheless cast a pall over the new version of Netscape's browser, Navigator 7.0, which was released the next day. In its announcement, the company said that the new Navigator would continue "the growing momentum of Netscape" and that the browser's new features would help win back people who've switched to Microsoft.

Netscape is right to have high hopes for the new Navigator. Version 7.0 is a fine browser; it's as stable and reliable as Internet Explorer, it renders pages just as quickly, and they all seem to work as they ought to.

But the browser's best new features, like faster HTML rendering and "tabbed browsing," aren't exactly novel -- they've been available in Mozilla, the open-source browser upon which Netscape is based, for some time. Under Netscape's development model, its programmers work on code for Mozilla, and only after a new version of Mozilla has been determined "stable" is it re-branded and released as a Netscape product. This development system has some benefits, but it's got one big drawback: It ensures that Netscape is always behind Mozilla, releasing features that the open-source browser had months before.

All of which is to say: Netscape is doomed. If there are good reasons for Internet Explorer users to switch to Netscape, there are better reasons to switch to Mozilla, which has all the features Netscape offers and none of the downsides -- especially Netscape's AOL Time Warner branding. Indeed, after its very bumpy first few years, during which it was ignored and called a failure, the Mozilla project is now becoming the most interesting thing in browsers. The faithful following of Mozilla developers working on all sorts of side projects -- blogging in the browser, a file manager, a chat client, an emulated Google Toolbar -- may have finally hit critical mass.

Some of those features are already available in Internet Explorer, but Mozilla's promise is that it's infinitely upgradable and that one needs minimal programming skills to get into the game. Soon, say developers, we'll see additions to Mozilla that go far beyond Internet Explorer.

But the best part about Mozilla is that it is not just a browser. Scores of developers are now talking about using Mozilla as a "platform" -- that is, using Mozilla's underlying code to build non-browser applications, like calendar programs and e-mail programs and even Linux desktops. You don't need to download Mozilla to use these apps, as some are distributed with their own stripped-down version of Mozilla's engine -- which, if you think about it, is exactly the kind of thing Microsoft was trying to prevent when it launched its war against Netscape. It didn't want Netscape around, because Netscape was becoming a platform. So wouldn't it be rich if, in the end, Microsoft succeeds in killing Netscape and winning the browser war but still, somehow, doesn't eliminate the platform threat? If Netscape dies but the dragon that it spawned burns Redmond?

For a piece of software, the Web browser has remained remarkably stagnant during the nine years it's been around. The first popular browser, Mosaic, developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, had almost everything you'd call necessary in a browser: the back, forward, home and refresh buttons and an address bar. Netscape's first browser, Netscape Mosaic 0.9, released in 1994, added everything else -- the stop button, bookmarks, and the ability to handle multiple connections, which greatly improved download speeds. (For an overview of Web browser history, check out Deja Vu.)

And that's pretty much where Web browser innovation stopped, says Jakob Nielsen, a Web site usability expert who has written several books on Web design. "Mosaic hit the initial sweet spot," he says, "and since then we've had one style of Web browser." He concedes that there were refinements on that initial idea -- today's browsers are faster and more stable than the first ones, and they have small add-ons that make life easier. You don't have to type in the "http://" part of a URL, as you had to do in the first browsers. "But it's a disgrace that you still can't print Web pages correctly," Nielsen says. "If you've ever printed any receipt from an e-commerce site, half the time the price is cut off. Why can't the browser say, 'I'm printing out on a higher-resolution device and I can easily shrink things to make them fit'?"

Nielsen's dream browser would "use the network" in its core processes, so that, for example, if you misspelled an URL it would auto-correct it to what you probably meant (the way Google does with search terms). Your browser could tell your search engine every page you've been to before, so that you could restrict your search to the sites you've seen in the past. Or, instead, he'd get rid of the browser altogether and come up with a "digital control panel," something integrated with e-mail and other network applications, that updates you when things change on the Web, tells you when someone comes online, and follows your favorite listservs and alerts you when you need to pay attention.

You might not like Nielsen's ideas, and perhaps your dream browser would be slightly different. But the way things are going now, whatever new features you want are probably not going to come from Microsoft.

For years, people have warned that when Microsoft took over the browser market, browsers would atrophy from a lack of competition. Now they say they've been proved right -- I.E. is not changing. Microsoft denies that's the case. As proof, a representative pointed to three new features in I.E. 6.0 -- the media toolbar, the "content advisor" and automatic image resizing. (In its review of I.E. 6.0, CNET's said of auto-resizing: "This isn't a bug, it's a feature. Honest.")

Microsoft has no reason to radically change Internet Explorer. The product doesn't make the company any money, and it's already overwhelmingly popular. With neither Netscape, nor Mozilla, nor the Norwegian browser offering, Opera, mounting any kind of significant challenge to Microsoft's dominance, the company would be foolish to spend more resources than it has to on the program.

"And that is the tragedy," says Nielsen. "They don't have an incentive to rock the boat. And if there's one company in the don't-rock-the-boat business, it's Microsoft."

Most Web users probably didn't want it to be this way, but during the browser wars, Netscape pretty much left us no choice. "It is Netscape's fault," says Nielsen. "Netscape could have maintained their lead. Now obviously they were against this ruthless empire, so we can't guarantee it -- but for a while there Microsoft built marginally better browsers. Internet Explorer ran better, put up the pages better. Early on, you'd have picked Netscape 3 over Internet Explorer 3. But then I.E. 4 was better than Netscape 4, and then I.E. 5 was much better."

Meg Hourihan, the Web developer and blogger who runs, offers the same timeline. "For Netscape 3, I was a Netscape user," she says. But when I.E. 4 came out, Hourihan and everyone she knew somewhat sheepishly moved over to Microsoft. "Netscape never recovered from that."

Certainly Microsoft's browser monopoly had something to do with its victory -- a federal court thought so, at least, and Netscape still blames its loss on Microsoft's practices. Laura Yecies, a Netscape executive in charge of client software, said that she attributes any market share that Netscape might have lost in the last year to "Microsoft's anticompetitive tactics." Despite those tactics, though, Yecies said she was confident that the new Netscape would cause people to switch.

Reviews of the product have been decidedly lackluster, however. CNET hated that Navigator "displays AOL ads everywhere" and doesn't include one of Mozilla's best features, a pop-up ad blocker. "We had high hopes for Netscape 7.0," said CNET's review team, "but we're sorely disappointed, especially by the missing pop-up suppressor. There's no practical reason to switch from either IE or Mozilla." On Slashdot, one jokester wrote, "Why should/would I use Netscape instead of Mozilla? Not getting enough pop-up windows in my life? Feel the need for a more closed solution?" ("Score: 5, Funny.")

It is a good question, because in almost every way, Mozilla is a better browser than Navigator. For example, Netscape's best new feature, tabbed browsing -- which lets you have several Web pages open in the same browser window, and allows you to bookmark all the pages under one name -- was in Mozilla many months ago, and the Mozilla project that created it (called MultiZilla) already has an improved version available. When asked about this, Yecies, of Netscape, said, "That's true, but the engineer who's working on it [for Mozilla] is a Netscape employee. It was always done with the intention of fostering general browsing usability for Netscape."

Because it's based on the same code, Netscape's Navigator can make easy use of Mozilla's proliferating add-ons. Fabricio Zuardi, a Web developer in Brazil, created a plug-in that automatically hides banner ads on Web pages. He's new to programming, and he picked up XUL -- an XML-based language to build user interfaces, pronounced "zool," that is Mozilla's main programming language -- from a tutorial on the Web. In no time he'd built the program, and people from all over started sending him code changes and additions.

A similar thing happened to Mike Lee, a 21-year-old in Australia who picked up XUL off the Web and used it to build MozBlog, which adds a blogging pane in your browser, allowing you to add to your blog from anywhere on the Web. "It would certainly be a lot more difficult to do" in another browser, Lee said in an online chat. "Mozilla has this technology that allows you to expand on the applications easily. It's a very programmable browser." MozBlog is his first major application.

David Boswell, the open-source developer who co-founded MozDev, says scores of such developers are taking to Mozilla programming. "Mozilla no longer is simply an open-source browser," he says. "It's a framework for cross-platform apps across the Web." Boswell, who has coauthored a book on this topic, "Creating Applications With Mozilla," says that in a Mozilla-based application, Gecko -- Mozilla's "rendering engine," which draws up HTML -- basically does most of the app's work. This allows programmers to do very little coding, and developing applications is in fact much closer to developing Web pages.

One project that Boswell particularly likes is OEone Software's HomeBase Desktop, a complete graphical interface for Linux systems. According to Mike Potter, a software developer at OEone, HomeBase is easier to use than any desktop you've used before. There are no menu bars and no floating windows -- a system that makes it somewhat less functional than other windows systems, but perfect for people who are just learning how to use computers. In other words, "Linux for your grandma," Potter said. (HomeBase works only on Linux right now, but one of the benefits of Mozilla-based code is that it's easy to port to other systems. OEone offers the source code on its site, so anyone who wants to build a Windows or Mac version is free to do so.)

It's unclear whether Mozilla development will ascend to a point where it truly threatens Microsoft. Mozilla certainly isn't the first "platform" challenger. Netscape and Java were the last such efforts. Microsoft, with its Windows monopoly, always seems to have a way to neutralize what initially appear to be strong threats to its way of doing things.

But Potter and Boswell say Mozilla's development model has one quality that makes them optimistic about the system -- it's easy. "This is much better than Java," Potter said. "What I think is going to happen is that all these people who've been making Web sites for all this time are going to get bored with it. The guys who are running advanced sites -- they don't know Java. They know Javascript and style sheets, and that's all you need for Mozilla. So they're going to start programming in Mozilla, because it's simple. They'll be writing little programs for Mozilla and you're going to go to somebody's page and download this program. It will just be part of the Web page."

"Eventually, [webmasters] will integrate their content into these programs, so you won't visit the golf Web site, you'll start up the golf program," Potter added.

"The browser's not even going to matter."

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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