Web Design: Entering the fourth era

LAST WEEK saw the end of an era for Web design, when America Online (AOL) purchased Netscape Communications Corporation. Despite its short history, seven years at best, Web design has passed through three era's, distinguished partially by the browsers being used at the time but also by the parties producing those technologies.

The first era of Web design began with the first graphics-capable Web browser to gain wide acceptance, Mosaic. Few remember this prehistoric period of Web design, before there were tables or frames or even font tags. These were simple days when the thought of doing actual "business" on the web seemed like a bastardization of the concept.

When Marc Andreesen left Mosaic to create a commercial Web browser, Netscape, a second era of Web design began. This was the Golden Age when HTML 2.0 was the standard and Netscape 1, and a little later Netscape 2, made up over 80 per cent of the browser market. Phrases such as "cross-browser issues" and "backward compatibility" were yet to be cursed on newsgroups and discussion lists. Web Designers were a desperately sought commodity even by the big companies that were struggling to understand what this new media would mean to their business.

Then came the browser wars, the third era of Web design, the era that came to an end last week. This era started when Microsoft introduced a browser that could seriously contend with Netscape's browser, Internet Explorer 3 and began a massive marketing campaign to get their browser placed onto every computer in the land. During this period many small time Web operations that had become overnight successes during the golden age folded, while others merged, and e-business became the constant buzzword. Web design was no longer about "code once, use anywhere" but we were forced to test, test, test.

With the purchase of Netscape by AOL, the worlds largest Internet Service Provider, we are now entering a fourth era. This is not to say that the browser wars are over, but the dynamics have forever changed as the chief players are shuffled around. AOL is more than just an ISP; although the 14 million or so customers they serve is nothing to sneeze at. AOL is a company that is positioning itself to be a major player in online communication. This deal has wide ranging ramifications and will one day either be celebrated as a watershed event for the Internet or rued as the day it all came tumbling down.

For its part, Microsoft, currently involved in an anti-trust case in the US, is not crowing over the fact that they have forced another company off the field. Rather the spin-masters in Redmond proclaim this acquisition as proof positive that competition still remains strong and vital in the Internet industry.

This is simply not the case. If the allegations against Microsoft are to true-and given the facts of this case and Microsoft's history there can be little doubt that they are - then the acquisition of Netscape by AOL is the final proof that Microsoft's actions not only hurt but undermine the very foundations of open competition. Netscape was unable to compete on the slanted playing field created by Microsoft and as a result have had to sell themselves to a third party with deeper pockets in the hopes of preserving their products. Will this tactic work? It hasn't in the past.

Remember WordPerfect? In the 1980's through the early 1990's, in a highly competitive field, WordPerfect was the leading word-processor. Then Microsoft released Word and, like a young gunslinger trying to take down the fastest gun in the West, directly targeted WordPerfect's customers by "leveraging" Word with its Windows operating system. Eventually WordPerfect lost just enough customers that it had to sell itself off. The product first passed through the hands of Novell and then to Corel, leaking market share rapidly along the way.

Word is now the market standard while WordPerfect has been stagnant for over 5 years. The result is that there is no longer any significant competition in the word processor market. Could this same fate befall the browser market?

Microsoft reminds me of the kid who owned the football and threatened to take it away unless everybody agreed to play by his rules.

The other players in the game, not only Microsoft's colleagues and competitors but the public as well, have allowed Microsoft to get away with its immature behaviour for far too long now.

Several people have asked me this week "Are you glad AOL bought Netscape?" To which I reply "No." And then add "...but it's better than Netscape disappearing altogether."

It's not that I hate AOL. My guilty secret is that after graduating university it was my first non-collegiate ISP. However, AOL is a different kind of company than Netscape and I question its ability to keep up the same pioneering spirit that, in its brief life span, has been Netscape's hallmark.

Will Netscape become homogenized with AOL? Will we see Navigator become as clumsy and simplistic as the AOL interface? Will AOL push for standards or will it incorporate its own proprietary code?

No other media is as inexorably linked to its medium as the Web is to the Web browser. There are few changes in paper technology that would be radical enough to necessitate an overhaul in the way in which print designers do their work, much less require them to rethink and relearn their design skills.

However, for Web design, every new browser or plug-in means new skills to learn, new ways of presenting our content, and new constraints to make sure that our sites work ubiquitously: whomever controls the browser, controls the Web.

There is hope. Last April Netscape released the code to create the Navigator browser into the public domain (http://www.independent.co.uk/net/980407ne/story5.html). This means that despite the fact that AOL owns the company, it does not own the code used to make the browser, and Navigator browsers can be produced independent of what AOL decides to do with the code.

Still, for a piece of software, any software, to become popular, it has to be installed first. Most home computer buyers will simply accept whatever browser comes pre-installed.

We can not predict exactly how this change will play out in the future, but there is little question in my mind that it will have a significant impact on the Web and, consequentially, on the way we do Web design.

E-mail comments or queries to Jason at indy_webdesign@mindspring.com

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us