Most web designers will have copies of each of the leading browsers installed on their system — for testing purposes — and so can decide themselves which browser they like the best. However, given the percentage of readers who come to HTML Source still using Internet Explorer 6, there are obviously a huge amount of people out there who haven’t been told that there are better browsers available.
This page was last updated on 2012-08-21
The Browser Wars
First, a little history, for the benefit of those who weren’t around during the infamous “browser wars.” Believe it or not, there was a point, a long time ago, when Netscape Navigator dominated the market. At around version 3 the browser was, for the time, excellent. HTML was simple and relatively pure. Eyeing Netscape’s success in a field that they had previously shown no interest in (Bill Gates himself once dismissed the Internet as a passing fad), Microsoft released their own browser, Internet Explorer (IE), with the sole intention of dislodging Netscape.
IE quickly became popular. Then came a period of flurried activity, with the two browser manufacturers releasing updates to their browser on ever-decreasing time scales. New HTML tags and DHTML extensions were created and then loosely documented. A designer could use these elements, but at the cost of having them fail in the competitor’s browser. A split started to form as pages designed for one of the “big two” browsers would not work in the other.
Eventually it became obvious that Netscape were fighting a losing battle. Because IE came pre-installed on every Windows machine, most users just used that instead of seeking out alternatives (this is the same problem that plagues any competing browser to this day). By the time Internet Explorer 6 was released, its market share had grown to a high of about 95%.
In the years that followed, lazy or ill-equipped web designers began to design their sites to work only in IE, as making a site look the same in other browsers required a lot of knowledge and effort. This only encouraged users to stick with IE, no matter how many advances were made in other browsers. Even when Netscape belatedly released the vastly improved Navigator 6 in the year 2000, it barely made a dent in the market.
And so, the war ended. Lying in its wake was a web of incompatibilities and sites that only worked in a certain version of one browser. HTML had been blown off course as a structural markup language and was now bloated with presentational elements like the much-maligned font tag. It took years to even begin to undo the damage that had been done.
Happily, things have finally started moving back towards a level playing field. Internet Explorer’s dominancy is no longer absolute, and web surfers now have lots of choice when deciding which browser they should use.
Any browser that was to successfully challenge IE6’s market dominance would have to be far and away the best browser on offer. Netscape 6 was decent, but didn’t cut it. The Mozilla suite, on which Navigator 6 was based, is excellent but aimed at developers and unwieldy for most user’s needs. The web needed a browser that was fast, lightweight, and did everything IE does, but better. That browser is Firefox.
Firefox is a browser designed from scratch to be secure, fast and customisable. It is the safest browser available, as it doesn’t contain many of the more obvious vulnerabilities that IE has, such as ActiveX components so often used to install spyware on IE-users’ machines. Firefox is still under very active development by a huge community of volunteer coders, many of whom worked at Netscape in its heyday. If a vulnerability is found, it is corrected and an update made available in days, sometimes hours. This means Firefox cannot fall into the same trap that IE did — receiving no updates for years and having its various security holes get exploited by thousands of hackers and virus writers.
Firefox uses the same powerful rendering engine (code named “Gecko”) which is found in all Mozilla products. This means it has superb support for all those things we web developers love. Its rendering is accurate and fast, and it has advanced stylesheet support up the proverbial ‘wazoo’. DOM support is present and accounted for.
Firefox has an open architecture which allows the installation of themes and extensions. Themes, like ‘skins’ in many other applications, give the browser a whole new look. Extensions are even better — anyone can write one to make the browser do something special, like check your Gmail account when you open the browser, or block all ads. Head to » Mozilla update to load up on extensions. Of particular use to any webmaster is the » web developer toolbar, which is essential.
All that is obviously really great, but the things that you’ll notice first about Firefox are features like » tabbed browsing which reduces your desktop clutter by keeping all of your open webpages within one Firefox window. Firefox was also the first browser to offer popup blocking by default. Once you’ve used either of these features, you will not ever want to go back.
Safari is Apple’s own web browser, and for its first few years was only available to lucky Mac owners, coming pre-installed on all new Macs since 2003. A Windows version was released in June 2007. Safari is a clean, very fast browser based on the WebKit rendering engine that also powers the Linux browser Konqueror.
Safari comes with all the features you would expect in a modern browser, like tabbed browsing, popup blocking and built-in search functionality. It also has the best RSS-reading feature available to date, which makes keeping track of a number of websites much easier than using bookmarks.
Because it’s designed by Apple, it feels right at home on the OS X operating system, and in general performs faster than the Mac version of Firefox, or the Firefox variant » Camino. It can also tie into other programs on the OS, so web forms can be spell-checked through OSX’s built-in dictionary and the Keychain program can keep track of your logins.
Safari also forms the core of the browser installed on Apple’s iPhone, so checking how your site renders in the desktop version is a must.
Internet Explorer 6
In early 2000 Internet Explorer 5 was the best browser on the market. It rendered pages pretty well, had a nice interface and was fast. IE6 was released soon afterwards with a few relatively minor fixes and cemented IE’s stranglehold on the web browser market.
Fast-forward to today and Internet Explorer has become the bane of any forward-thinking web designer’s existance. With the onset of advanced CSS layout techniques, IE6’s rendering engine has been exposed as buggy and unreliable. IE is years behind the times — CSS properties that are well supported in Gecko-based browsers, like Firefox, aren’t even on the radar for IE, and probably won’t be for another few years, when the long-delayed next version of Windows appears.
Explorer is an average browser. The interface is still good and it’s relatively speedy when rendering web pages, but its lack of support for CSS specifications that were standardised in 1998 is a huge problem. It is prone to crashing, and has hundreds of security holes which allow spyware to get onto your system, to the point where I can’t recommend it to anyone anymore. Upgrade to another browser listed on this page, and encourage others to do likewise.
Internet Explorer 8
The Mozilla Suite
The Mozilla suite is a collection of software — a browser, a mail and newsgroup client, a chat client and a HTML editor. This was Mozilla’s flagship product until the constituent parts were split up, reworked and developed separately into standalone products — Firefox for browsing and the excellent » Thunderbird for mail.
There was also a product known as Netscape Navigator 8 originally based on the Mozilla suite, with some Netscape branding and extra unnecessary interface options thrown in on top. Most of the good things said about Firefox also apply to the suite, but I would still recommend the standalone Mozilla products for speed and ease of use. If you’re looking for one download to do the whole lot, the suite does exactly what you want.
Opera Software’s browser is a really good piece of work. Billing itself as “The fastest browser on Earth!”, it is a free browser with excellent standards support.
The amount of ideas and helpful features that they’ve managed to cram into opera is really something else. Your desktop is kept tidy through its tabbed browsing features, which opens all webpages in dockable windows inside a single instance of the application. There are a range of tools to help you find information on the net easily, from integrated search-enabled toolbars to instantaneous looking-up of selected words.
Two very helpful features are the page-zoom feature, which allows you to zoom in the entire document, instead of just the text; and the developer shortcuts to turn off stylesheets and images. In other browsers you have to go through multiple menus or use bookmarklets for this functionality.
The interface is clean and sleek, though a bit crowded. Whereas the interface in browsers like Firefox is strictly controlled, in that nothing gets added to it without it being absolutely necessary, Opera’s designers don’t seem to have been so discerning. As a consequence, the menus and toolbars can be overwhelmingly filled with options that you generally won’t need to change.
The browser built into Nintendo’s wonderful Wii is based on Opera, so if you want Wii owners to be able to surf your site in between bouts of Wii Tennis, you should test in Opera first.
All in all, Opera is definitely worth a try in place of the more established browsers. It may not have a large following, but it is a very promising offering, and is pioneering features you will undoubtedly see appearing in other browsers down the line. I like it.
Netscape Navigator 4
Netscape 4 was just plain bad, but the web designers of the world had to struggle on bravely for many years, supporting its bug-ridden rendering engine. The interface is horrible and dull, the rendering engine is terrible, glitching up on simple HTML, not to mention even basic CSS and HTML 4 stuff. Worse still, when a page is rendered wrong, hitting refresh a couple of times will sometimes correct the problem, prompting the question, “What the hell is going on?”
Designing sites that work in this archaic browser is easier than it used to be. Simply hide your stylesheets from it by importing them. Navigator 4 users are used to seeing unstyled content at this stage. In the vast majority of cases, you don’t even need to test in this browser anymore. All Netscape browsers were discontinued in 2008.