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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of  Academic Computing and User Services

It Won't Work in my Browser

It's a refrain I find myself saying frequently these days. "It won't work in my browser." Of course, I suffer the burden of being a Macintosh user who likes Safari as the default browser. Safari loads quickly and renders HTML web pages with ease. But, there's the occasional media clip, applet, or web application that just fails to work, leaving an apparent pothole in the information superhighway. Yet I doggedly cling to Safari and its ability to present text and graphics in a fast and efficient manner. Why? Because all of that other stuff wasn't supposed to be part of the World Wide Web in the first place.  

To most of those who have been introduced to the Internet after 1995, the World Wide Web is synonymous to the Internet, but they are not at the same thing at all. The origins of WWW were much more humble. The idea was to combine text and graphics on a virtual page, but to include the concept of hypertext as well. The idea had been around for decades, but as happens with technology, sometimes a lot of small developments are needed for the big ones to actually work. (Leonardo da Vinci sketched designs for a helicopter-like device and a parachute, but it took centuries to develop the technology to bring those ideas to fruition.) Hypertext, in Internet form, allowed links to other online pages. This provided a way to link together information from diverse sources in a way that allowed the reader to determine how they wished to browse the information.  Rather than being a book whose pages only turned consecutively and one at a time, it was now a book where pages could be randomly navigated.

So what happened in 1995 that changed the WWW world?

What happened? NSFNet returned to being a research-only network. Netscape stock went public. Commercial dial-up online services began providing Internet access. And, the Internet was unleashed on the capitalist economy. Commercialization of the Internet changed the nature of the World Wide Web. The Web, as it's known now, was not a product, but rather a set of standards and protocols implemented in client and server software. Those protocols set certain frameworks for how information was to be organized, but not for how it was to be ultimately displayed. For example, this article has a title and some text. How these elements are display is determined by the browser (the client software). Generally, a title is in a larger font with some emphasis applied (usually bolded text).  But there is no specification to how large or what font. Those specifications are configurable in most browsers. Yet, with commercialization came a quest for control. My observation of marketing leads me to believe that it requires not only control of what you see and when you see it, but how you see it as well.

Commercialization of the Internet gravitated to the application which offered the most malleable information presentation interface and a certain level of adaptability as well. The early Internet days saw many different and sometimes competing protocols with special client and server implementations to accomplish the task for which they were designed. Many of these still survive, e-mail protocols being the most prominent example. But it's hard to accomplish commerce if you have to keep switching programs during commercial transactions. It would be like going to one store to place an order, another to pay, and yet another to pick up the goods. The development of the idea of the Common Gateway Interface (CGI) meant that interactions could be generated within the Web arena by creating web pages programmatically based upon input received from prior pages. Any time you type any information into a web page field or select a radio button you are interacting with a CGI or one of its descendents.

And then came Microsoft ...

World Wide Web development could have proceeded in the same manner as previously.  New ideas would be proposed and implemented, mostly in the public domain and freely available for implementation by anyone with the technical skills and inclination to do so. The best ideas would get generally adopted, and the less useful ones would eventually fall into disuse, like a gopher slinking back into its hole. This anarchic, but effective, development process had served the Internet well, yielding the strongest surviving ideas not culled by software evolution. But, something else happened in 1995: Microsoft released Internet Explorer.

It's quite inviting, if not easy, to blame most of the ills of the Internet or the world on Microsoft.  However, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Microsoft was doing what any determined capitalist does. They were using whatever means possible to ensure that their software was used for Internet access and to sell more products than their competitors. This strategy worked for IBM for years, until their development of the IBM PC opened the door to technology that ultimately lead to the demise of their most profitable product (I love the Irony Age.) Microsoft was quite successful in their quest, with Internet Explorer quickly becoming the most used browser in the early 2000s. But, as a web search on the words "Microsoft" and "Antitrust" will quickly confirm, judges in the U.S. and Europe have been convinced that Microsoft may have broken a few laws to get to where the are today. But, this still resulted in Netscape, the hottest stock in 1995, turning into "what's Netscape?" by 2005.

The bigger impact of Microsoft's quest for world Internet domination has been a rift in the development process for Internet software technology. By achieving an over 90 percent market share for browser software, and by sticking to a strategy where they control software and ideas and you can't compete, a certain amount of stagnation has set into the Internet software arena. Not all of this is due to Internet Explorer. New software has developed, but the necessity to mediate everything through HTML and deliver in a browser has inhibited the possibility of the better idea that's bound to come along and absorb and replace the World Wide Web. The evolutionary path has been stifled (a sure path to extinction.)

So why won't it work in my browser?

The reason that stuff doesn't work in my browser is that open protocols and unrestricted development environments have been replaced by proprietary software implementations and software patents. The Web's main reason for being is no longer for open information, but for commercial applications. And the biggest cause is the confusion of market share with global standard. The best way to lose my interest is to tell me that your web page works best (or only) in Internet Explorer or any other specific browser implementation. Plain old HTML always works in my browser.


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