Money: Just browsing? On the internet it's essential

A BROWSER is the ignition key, steering wheel, and accelerator of the internet. Without one, the world wide web is useless.

A browser takes computer language - specifically, a language called HTML - and turns it into text and graphics. A browser turns a home computer into a "client" that can read information on companies' web servers.

Anyone who wants to use the web needs a browser, and the market for the programs themselves is fiercely competitive. Two companies dominate: Netscape, which produces Navigator and its sister program, Communicator, and the giant Microsoft, with Explorer (IE4).

The US Department of Justice recently attempted to prevent Microsoft from welding its Explorer browser to the Windows operating system. The DoJ argued that this prevents competition: with most of the world's PCs running Windows, other browser companies will find it hard to compete.

Microsoft responded that the browser is so critical that it has to be integrated into Windows 98, which goes on sale this week. Last week an appeal court upheld its case. But this was just the latest skirmish in the "browser wars" that have raged in the software industry since Microsoft launched Explorer. Microsoft began by giving away Explorer, not just to end users but to internet service providers and electronic commerce sites, such as banks.

Microsoft's strategy has seen Netscape's market share fall to 58 per cent of the home market, and just under 70 per cent of business users. In February this year, Netscape responded by making its browser free.

For all the controversy, both browsers carry out an identical task: accessing web pages. For most day-to-day use, there is little to choose between them.

However, there are cases where the choice of browser does matter. Some on-line banking services recommend Explorer, for example, while Barclaycard's web site only works fully with Communicator, not Navigator or Explorer. There are also internet services that work with one browser only: some features of the Microsoft Network, for example, only work with Explorer IE4.

Lying behind this is a different approach to browsers, and to the web itself. Microsoft's critics say that the company is too wedded to its own, proprietary technologies, while one of the great strengths of the internet is that it is built on open standards.

Microsoft, for example, uses a technology called ActiveX to add functionality to web pages. Sites designed for ActiveX will not work properly for internet users who run one of the Netscape browsers. Nor is ActiveX fully compatible with computers running non-Microsoft operating systems. Apple Mac users will have difficulty with some internet sites, even if they use Explorer to view them.

Netscape contends that web page authors, especially organisations such as banks, should stay with open technologies or risk alienating large numbers of customers. Open standards can take longer to come into force than in-house technologies, but the advantage is compatibility. To make the most of Microsoft's IE4 functions, for example, users have to run Microsoft's Windows 95 or 98 operating systems. Communicator, Netscape claims, is less fussy.

There is evidence that Microsoft is moving closer to the open standards position. The next generation of browsers from both Microsoft and Netscape will support XML, a development of HTML that adds much of the interactivity that ActiveX provides.

This does not mean a truce in the browser wars. Browser market share is important for Microsoft and, especially, Netscape. Starting a browser program takes the internet user to a default home page which, oddly, is almost always the browser maker's. Last year, Netscape made more than $100m from selling space on its home page. With these sums at stake, Microsoft and Netscape will continue to fight their corners.

q: Links:

Stephen Pritchard can be contacted at

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Ann: Senior Finance Analyst

£45,000: Ann: My client is a FTSE 250 retailer based in Central London and the...

Anna Woodward: Reporting Analyst

£35,000: Anna Woodward: Are you excited about making an impact on a FTSE 250 b...

Anna Woodward: French Sales Ledger Clerk

£23,000 - £28,000: Anna Woodward: My client is aleading global manufacturer an...

Christine McCleave: Accounts Assistant

£22,000 - £25,000: Christine McCleave: Are you looking for a new opportunity a...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower