Browser wars

The Web is a young thing. We're still trying to figure out its role in our lives and, maybe more accurately, figure out how to turn it into a moneymaker. There are things, however, that we should have figured out by now. The most obvious to me is the Web browser.

Netscape 7.0 and its open source cousin Mozilla 1.0 were released several weeks ago, and the fanfare each received reminded me how little it takes to get us Web folk aroused. Internet Explorer 6.0 is my preferred browser, but that has more to do with how the older versions of Explorer worked than the current offering. Three years ago, I thought Explorer rendered pages better than Netscape and it supported Cascading Style Sheets. Netscape didn't, so I switched.

I've spent the last few days experimenting with Explorer-alternatives Mozilla, Netscape and Opera, and I am pleased to say that I think they're easy to use and offer some options that I wish Explorer did. Tabbed browsing is a handy feature that allows users to easily switch back and forth between several Web pages simply by clicking on a tab in the main browser window. The new browsers also offer users the opportunity to use the sidebar window to manage more than just their bookmarks (e-mail, address book, search). I may flirt with the others for a while longer, but I'm not the average user. Most people will ignore these alternatives because none stands out as above the rest as an absolute must-have or replacement for Explorer.

According to Amsterdam-based OneStat.com, a provider of website analysis software, Microsoft Corp. browsers account for 95.3 percent of the global usage share market. Netscape Communications Corp. browsers account for just 3.2 percent, followed by Opera at 0.7 percent. Unseating the undisputed champ will take something bigger, and it's time that entrepreneurs, programmers, standards bodies, and Web designers and developers really put their heads together and start making browsers that do more than move surfers around the Web one page at a time. Personally, I'd like to see:

- One click registration. Registration is a common user activity/requirement. Sometimes, websites ask for a valid e-mail address. Those that require transactions often ask for street address, phone number and other personal information. Users should be able to create a file that stores all of the typical registration information: name, e-mail address, street address, phone number and so on. If paying for content is really going to be the wave of the future, then registering and making payments has to be as easy as hitting a button on a browser. Wouldn't it be neat if users could plug this information into a file that could be sent (encrypted) to the registration page of a website with one click?

- Media integration. When broadband actually gets here, rich media will be an important part of the Web experience, and that's why browsers should be able to display animation, audio and video without the need to call up a separate media player. (Yikes, this is really where we need standards instead of proprietary formats.) Users should be able to manage and play media from their browsers. Merging these two applications makes sense.

- Customization. It's relatively easy for users to arrange the toolbars and tabs (Explorer does this the best) to the user's liking, and clear the interface of little-used buttons and options in the current crop of browsers--they almost get this one right, but let's take it further. Users should have more control of what they see… from pop-up windows to banner ads and so on. Ad-blocking software and pop-up control should come as a browser standard. For whatever reason, online ads just don't work, so it's time that marketers come up with something better and stop annoying surfers (um, that's another column).

The Web is only going to get older, and it's going to get bigger as a result of convergence, or divergence, or whatever you believe, and we're going to figure it out. And browsers, hopefully, will make the necessary gains and morph into an entirely different type of application altogether.

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