Brows­er Wars: The long road to brows­er-based soft­ware

Maximilian

An era is coming to an end: With the announcement on June 15, Microsoft effectively shut down its long-standing web flagship Internet Explorer. We take the occasion to revisit the history of browsers, looking at what has changed for users since then and the possibilities that new browser-based technologies provide.

The first web surfers

We turn the clocks way back: in the early 1990s, the browser landscape resembled a barren, deserted wasteland. While a few solutions hinted at the potential of the World Wide Web, the market remained largely insignificant. However, this circumstance would soon change: With the release of "Netscape Navigator" in 1994, the company Netscape Communications succeeded in inspiring the masses and introducing them to the uncharted territory that is the Internet. Soon, enthusiastic users of all ages were exploring the possibilities and wonders of an unparalleled, unprecedented information technology.

However, this dominance would not last very long. Just one year later, Microsoft ushered in a new era of Internet use with the release of "Internet Explorer". At the same time, it also marked the beginning of the "browser wars," a fierce battle for market share that continues to this day, albeit with different protagonists. Although Netscape Navigator fought valiantly against the growing success of its competitor, it was eventually knocked off its throne with the release of "Internet Explorer 3". The decisive reason for the unprecedented, meteoric rise of the software is considered to be the fact that it was automatically included in the Windows operating system, which quickly established it as the standard for many users.

Internet Explorer reached the peak of its dominance around the turn of the millennium. In 1999, Microsoft held a 99% market share, which left the company, by now an established tech giant, facing antitrust lawsuits. But while that story could have ended at that point, it was ultimately its longtime competitor Netscape that turned the tide. By opening up its code base and founding the non-profit organization Mozilla, the foundations were laid for the development of the Firefox browser, which was released in 2002. The co-founder and key figure for the new project was Brendan Eich, who previously distinguished himself through his work for Netscape and the development of LiveScript, the precursor to JavaScript. The success of modern solutions like Firefox and Safari ultimately disrupted the smothering dominance of Internet Explorer and kicked off a new era in browser computing.

The Internet with a new Chrome gloss

The current market leader would enter the scene a few years later, in 2008. With the release of Chrome, the U.S. company Google quickly took a dominant role in the browser wars. According to the data from Statista, in 2022 about two-thirds of all Internet users use Chrome as their default browser. Yet the influence of the infrastructure developed by Google goes beyond its own end-user product. With the Chromium code base, the company developed a free and open source web browser project that is now widely used. Other popular browsers such as Microsoft Edge, Opera and Samsung Internet are based on the Chromium code. In addition, it is partly utilized by several app frameworks.

By then, Internet Explorer had long fallen by the wayside. Microsoft itself released Edge in 2015, a successor that overtook Internet Explorer in the market in 2019. With the Chromium substructure, Microsoft Edge meanwhile also overtook Safari and Firefox and became the second most popular desktop browser in the world. The silent farewell to Internet Explorer was therefore the logical result.

The leap to a new standard

While many browsers managed to adapt to new circumstances, others perished. Especially shortly after the turn of the millennium, the Internet became more and more a place of multimedia collaboration and interaction. This was accompanied by the establishment of new standards that promoted this development. However, since the transition of many users was proceeding sluggishly, Webstandards.org founded the so-called "Browser Upgrade Campaign". This was designed to equip website hosts with tools to educate their audiences about the existence of web standards and to encourage them to switch to browsers that support HTML, CSS, and a standard DOM.

Of course, this development did not escape Microsoft's attention. In a blog article, the US company defined four characteristics of a modern browser:

  • Speed: Browser-based software runs as fast as native applications because of its underlying platform.
  • Immersion: Seamless integration of video, graphics, audio and text enables immersive experiences without loss of performance.
  • Reliability: Features are implemented only after extensive testing and specifications are not changed or removed unpredictably.
  • Technology: Modern standards are adopted at an early stage so that they can be used by developers.

In short, a modern browser excels at rendering a website successfully and at best performance, without the need for specific workarounds.

The future of Software

So there's quite a lot that goes into a browser these days. However, the evolution of technologies and standards has broader implications - for example, on the potential and development processes of modern software. While programs once had to be purchased physically and installed locally on devices, the trend is now moving in a completely different direction. Web-based software can be accessed directly and easily via the browser. Instead of burdening local hardware, it runs via an external server. Users only need a stable Internet connection rather than a modern device. This also makes the tedious, time-consuming importing of updates a relic of the past. Users can access their software anytime and anywhere - completely free of hardware restrictions.

The difference between a simple website and browser-based software is that the latter provides backend functions in desktop style via the front end of your web browser. This opens up new possibilities in terms of presentation and operation, resulting in a simple and intuitive user experience. Moreover, the software is independent of the user's operating system, as modern browsers always render HTML and run JavaScript in the same way. Accordingly, a smartphone made by Samsung could use the same functions of a platform as an Apple computer.

For users, the evolution in browser technology has led to a revolution in everyday life. They now face a wealth of options, regardless of location or equipment. Gone are the days when using software implied numerous hurdles and conditions. Everything now runs through a browser, simply and straightforwardly.

This development could not come at a more opportune time: The global pandemic in particular and the associated shift to home offices have demonstrated how important independent, legally compliant and secure access to crisis-proof browser-based software can be. Both for system preservation and job security as well as for interpersonal communication, the relevance of modern browser technology is becoming increasingly apparent. The ground for this was already paved in the 90s - by small, inconspicuous programs such as Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer.

 

Sources and further information:

History of the browser by Smartbear
Wikipedia entry about Browser Wars
Article by t3n about the end of IE
Survey results from Statista
Browser Upgrade Campaign by The Web Standards Project
Modern browsers guide by Microsoft