Now it's all in glorious technicolour

Browsers have brought the Net to life with photographs, sound, even animation. Joseph Gallivan explores the most popular products; Even the most experienced navigator can lose the way
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Indy Lifestyle Online
In the beginning was Lynx. When the World Wide Web was invented, this was the only browser available, and it offered nothing but text. Then, in 1993, Mosaic arrived with its "graphical interface", and everything changed. It was the first to reveal (and thus encourage) the World Wide Web to be vast, varied and colourful, allowing you to see photos and animation, and download sounds and small amounts of video.

Although designed by students at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications in Illinois, it is now licensed by a company called Spyglass to companies that want to customise and resell it. As Web fever has gripped the online world, the lofty likes of AT&T, Digital Equipment Corp, IBM, FTP Software, NEC and even Microsoft have licensed some or all of the Mosaic code. In February 1995, Prodigy became the first commercial online service in America to offer access to the Web, causing the others - CompuServe and America Online - hastily to do likewise.

By far the most popular browser at the moment is Netscape Navigator, used by around 75 per cent of Web surfers. Netscape is a direct descendant of Mosaic - which is not surprising as Netscape Inc's key man is Marc Andreesen, who helped write the original at NCSA. Netscape hit the headlines this summer when it was floated on the US stock market and instantly gave Mr Andreesen a paper worth of $60m. Not bad for a company that had been going for only 18 months, had yet to make a profit and gave away most of its products.

Although it is possible to buy browsers commercially, you can also get one free off the Internet. When you sign up with an Internet service provider, you will be given (or will be told how to get) a Web browser. Netscape allows private users to download browsers free - it hopes to make its money by charging commercial organisations. As its market position improves, it may be able to charge everyone.

But why do people download Netscape in preference to other browsers? Because it is faster and more sophisticated (see accompanying review). It also incorporates a security system that should allow you to pass your credit-card number across the Internet safely. Cracks have recently been found in this system, which Netscape is repairing. The company is in the process of introducing its version 2.0., which has extra features and is compatible with Windows 95.

Last year, as the Web exploded, new browsers were appearing every week. There is now a plethora of them - Cello, Charlotte and Chimera, Dancer, Samba, WWWindia, Amiga Mosaic, MacWeb, MacMosaic, Mariner, to name just a few. There is even WebFax Server, with which you can download Web documents to any fax with a touch-tone dialler! If you are on the Web already, you can see what is happening at browser watch (http://www.ski. mskcc.org/browserwatch/index.html).

Things have cooled off a little since then. Cello, one of the earlier Mosaic derivatives, now bears a list of mournful messages on its home page. Users doubt that the long-awaited Cello2, with its rumoured "implicit next page feature" (it tells you where to go next), will ever materialise.

Because of its visibility, the browser industry is at the centre of a series of mergers. Earlier this year, Air Mosaic was a just another browser on offer from a company called Spry in Seattle. But CompuServe, the world's biggest online service, wanted a piece of the Web action, bought Spry, and changed its name to Spry Seattle. Consequently, full Internet access is now offered via Compuserve's myriad local numbers and its subscribers are able to download Air Mosaic free. You should watch how much time you spend on CompuServe's Web service, however: after the first three hours you pay a hefty charge. The same is true of the browser that can be bolted on to the Microsoft Network (MSN), which comes with Windows 95.

Other companies are trying to move the Web on. Sun Microsystems has developed Java, a smart new programming language for the Web. HotJava is Sun's Web browser, written in the Java language. Java allows extra little programs (applets) to be downloaded with a Web page, regardless of the platform of the user.

It is easy to see Web browsers as mere tools, like a telephone - a black one, a red one, a Mickey Mouse one. There are two reasons they are important. The first is commercial. They often dictate which network electronic consumers operate on, and with whom they shop. The second is that with more and more computing being done online, they are evolving into applications and may even end up as Operating Systems (like Windows) themselves. Whoever writes the browsing program that is accepted as a general computing standard will be powerful indeed.

The Science Museum in London recently held a Superhighway exhibition at which the public could experiment with the World Wide Web. The museum installed Netscape Navigator, the de facto standard browser. I was on hand to help out and got to know Netscape well.

Here are the most common system weaknesses and human errors I identified:

1) Hyperlinks can be selected only if you use a mouse device - you cannot yet "tab" between them using the keyboard. Without access to a mouse, you are stuck at the first page that you load. This is a problem common to all browsers.

2) It is too easy to "cut and paste" parts of a document by mistake. Many people unaccustomed to a mouse do not to let go of the button after clicking on a hyperlink. Instead they find they have highlighted a chunk of text, which can easily move around or be deleted.

3) Another common mistake is to assume the "Find" button allows you to search for documents on the Web, when all it does is search the current document for a string of text. "Net Search" is the button needed.

4) The "stacking up" of error-message windows on top of one another means that an earlier window can be obscured. If this happens, the system will become unusable because windows need to be shut down in the order they first appeared. The only answer is to reposition each window and then close it.

5) Netscape has some "enhanced" features that are potential nightmares. The ability to open multiple windows means that, inevitably, people start to open dozens of screens. Gradually, this leads to a degradation in system performance and the system becomes unusable.

6) It is too easy to close the system by mistake. Selecting "Exit" from any Netscape window shuts down the system immediately, and the "Close" option will also do the same if you are located in the main ("top level") Netscape window. A box asking if you really want to close would be invaluable.

JASON MANGER

The author has written three Internet-related books. The latest is 'Netscape Navigator' (McGraw-Hill).

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