How we access the internet has changed radically since the web was first introduced, and almost as old as the web itself is the battle over what browser we use to view it. Browsers have the ability to completely reshape the way we interact with the web, and therefore tech companies have engaged in fierce competition over the years to corner the market on internet browsers in an attempt to shape the web as they see fit.
Here is a brief history of internet browsers over the past two decades, with some commentary on why choice has been and will always be the first need of web users.
WorldWideWeb: The First Internet Browser
When the World Wide Web was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at CERN in 1991, he also created the first web browser confusingly also named WorldWideWeb (later redubbed Nexus). At the time, WorldWideWeb was the only way to view the web and therefore had no competitors. After the web went public, Berners-Lee released the code of WorldWideWeb to allow for new browsers to be designed.
Netscape versus Internet Explorer
As the World Wide Web became more popular, it was at first largely accessed via a browser called Mosaic. This would later be adapted by the Netscape Communications Corporation to create Netscape Navigator in 1994. Netscape was the first browser to gain widespread appeal and was a monolith in the early years of internet browsers. However when computer giant Microsoft entered the fray, Netscape began losing their hold on the market. When Microsoft began pre-packaging Internet Explorer within their popular Windows operating system, the sneaky business practice signalled the final death knell for Netscape. It did however land Microsoft in an antitrust lawsuit where they were charged with acting in a monopolistic manner. The ruling however could not save Netscape, who were forced to go open source and disappeared from the scene.
Firefox and Safari Challenge IE
In 2003 Internet Explorer reached its zenith with an estimated 92% of all internet users using it to view the web, but it was also that same year that Microsoft decided to stop supporting Internet Explorer for Mac, forcing Apple to enter the foray with its own web browser – Safari. The following year the corpse of Netscape rose again in the form of Mozilla Firefox, an open source browser directly descended from the code of Netscape. After a cautious amount of uptake, Firefox began to rapidly gain popularity as the browser of choice among the tech savvy. With Safari already shaving a couple of percentage points off IE’s market share, Firefox redoubled in its efforts meaning that Internet Explorer’s usage share has been in steady decline since Firefox debuted in 2004.
The World in Chrome
Firefox may have been the browser that knocked IE off-balance, but it would be the debut of Google Chrome in 2008 that truly threw it from its pedestal. Web giant Google took advantage of the fact internet users were becoming more aware of the different browser choices available, and began siphoning off users that Firefox had liberated towards themselves. As the most popular website on the internet, Google was able to advertise its browser to masses of internet users and it rocketed in users. By 2012, Chrome had surpassed IE in some measures as the most popular internet browser in the world.
Internet Browsers Today: The Triumph of Choice
Perhaps the lesson to be learned from the internet browser wars is that the web has always been about choice as the dissemination of information, and therefore limiting users to one method of accessing it via a monopoly web browser was never feasible. Computer users are increasing tech savvy, and instead of mindlessly using the preinstalled browser many of them now understand that they can choose whatever browser they feel suits them best. This has allowed users with specialised interests to use browsers tailored to their needs. For example browsers like TorchBrowser, which places particular emphasis on multimedia and downloading by integrating a BitTorrent downloader, are able to gain much more traction because the users have the power to specialise according to their preferences.
While measuring browser usage is an inexact science and varies massively between platforms and places, it is generally accepted now that the web browser market is split fairly evenly (give or take a few percentage points) between Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox and several other competitors. This fair marketplaces is allowing for more competition, which only benefits users by giving them more choice – enhancing user experience and encouraging innovation.
Guest post by Kate Simmons, freelance writer and occasional blogger on tech-related topics.