The Browser Wars - Part I

The Browser Wars is a concept dating since the late 90s, which describes a competition for dominance in the web browsers’ market share, to obtain its monopoly and have leverage to push changes to the evolution of the Internet.


In the beginning of the 90s, Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web, and released the first web browser, WorldWideWeb (also known as Nexus). He released it for NeXTstep in 1991 and, with Jean-François Groff, developed libwww, a web API for use in web browsers, which would spur the appearance of new browsers such as Line Mode, ViolaWWW, but especially Mosaic.

The Mosaic Wars

Mosaic was a web browser developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), and was multiplatform, which helped its rise to prominence. By 1995, Mosaic would become the most important web browser, and was expected by many tech enthusiats to become the browsing standard. However, many companies paid for Mosaic, to obtain licensing rights and create their own commercial browsers, such as AirMosaic or Spyglass. At the same time, one of the original Mosaic Developers, Marc Andreessen, founded Mosaic Communications and created Mosaic Netscape. Over time, there was an increasing number of Mosaic browsers from different people and companies, and many legal issues would arise with the NCSA about naming rights. Marc Andreessen decided to rename his Mosaic Netscape “Netscape Navigator” and rename his company “Netscape Communications Corporation”. He would still continue using the same codebase as before, but would improve a lot the UI. Netscape Navigator would also be made free for non-commercial use. All this combined helped Netscape become the dominant web browser in the market, even with the launch of IBM Web Explorer, Navipress, OmniWeb, UdiWWW or the soon notorious Microsoft Internet Explorer 1.0, itself based on the original NCSA Mosaic browser.

The First Browser War (1995-2001)

At the time, Operating Systems didn’t include any web browsers. It was the user’s role to buy the CD for their preferred web browser. Netscape was available free, but could also be bought in retail stores. Windows was already the dominant OS with the launch of the successful Windows 95, so Microsoft decided to release Internet Explorer within the Windows 95 Plus! pack in August 1995.

A few months later, Internet Explorer 2.0 would be released for free, including for commercial use, which created a partial shift from corporate users, and therefore all other browser developers would do the same. This was also the time where Internet suites would arise - containing a web browser, a chat service, an e-mail management program… Netscape would also do the same, and rebranded Netscape Navigator to Netscape Communicator.

With all that competition, new features were frequently added, development was at a very fast pace, notably Netscape’s JavaScript which was immediately followed by Microsoft’s JScript, or HTML tags like <blink> (only in Netscape) or <marquee> (only on IE).

In 1996, Internet Explorer 3.0 was roughly on par with Netscape, and included for the first time Cascading Style Sheets (CSS).

In October 1997, Internet Explorer 4.0 was released and was integrated into Microsoft Windows 98 which made the latter have a large installation base, and which was not removable. At the same time, in San Francisco, Microsoft developers had put a giant IE logo on the front lawn of Netscape’s offices with a small sign reading “From the IE team… We love you”. Seeing this as provocation, Netscape developers knocked the IE logo over and built a giant figure of their famous mascot Mozilla the dinosaur atop it, with a sign that read “Netscape 72, Microsoft 18” which were at the time the then-current market share.

Spurring from this competition saw the rise of websites that would feature logos that would say “best viewed in Netscape” or “best viewed in Internet Explorer” which would demonstrate how the competitors would go astray from the standards set up by Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) who would promote the “Viewable with any browser” campaign. Web designers would however disregard the warning and would only continue testing on a single browser.

However, with the arrival of Internet Explorer 5 & 6, which were forced upon by Microsoft on the Windows platform, the fact that Netscape couldn’t make its browser fully free due to the lack of revenue, and the requirement to use IE for Microsoft web-based services, dominance of the market share would significantly change from Netscape to Microsoft, which would then face an antitrust case for alledged abuse of monopoly. A settlement was finally reached between the plaintiffs (OEMs and other browser developers) and the defender (Microsoft) where all of Microsoft’s APIs were disclosed for interoperability. However, by then it was too late for the competition, Internet Explorer had overrun the entire market.

American Online (AOL) then acquired Netscape for USD$4.2 billion the same year of the case (1998) but by then even they couldn’t salvage its former popularity.

The First Browser War ended with Internet Explorer 6.0 being the dominant browser with more than 96% of the market share. This however brought a standstill of innovation, and only a few security patches would be made, which made IE 6 a very insecure browser. It would continue to be integrated to Windows.

Part II is coming soon!