Browser Brawls

Internet Explorer 8 beta one will compete with Opera, Firefox and possible standards sanctions.

The latest battle in the browser wars is about to begin as all the key providers of Web navigation software prepare to return to the front lines. Microsoft is queuing up beta one of Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) for the first half of 2008, while beta 3 of upstart Firefox 3 hit the Web just as 2007 drew to a close. And, in December, The Mozilla Foundation folks behind Firefox started talking about a new project called Weave, which promises to makes it easier for developers to build dynamic applications and for users to control their personal data.

The goal is to furnish a set of basic, optional Mozilla-hosted online services and make sure people can set up their own services using open-standards tools, according to the Mozilla Web site. The organization wants to demonstrate a "consistent model" for users who want to open up their browser metadata to friends and third-party applications. Mozilla wants to enable such sharing while also protecting privacy: using client-side encryption by default but allowing the user to delegate and control access rights.

Microsoft retains browser market share leadership with more than a 75 percent or 80 percent share -- depending on the researcher and methodology -- but Firefox continues to make strides.

By the Numbers
IE Passes Acid Test
by Will Kraft

Internet Explorer (IE) has been a source of chagrin to Web developers over the years due to less-than-perfect W3C standards support. This problem is pervasive with IE6, considering how badly the aging 2001-era browser renders modern CSS-driven layouts.

These shortcomings have led many developers to code for browsers with better standards support, such as The Mozilla Foundation's Firefox. IE6 compatibility was achieved through a variety of hacks and workarounds that often broke a site's CSS and HTML compliance. IE7 was better than the previous version, but it still didn't equal the alternatives.

However, Microsoft's IE8 finally passed the Acid2 Browser Test, which is designed to test how well a browser can deal with invalid code and still render a Web site correctly. This feat provides evidence that IE has significantly improved in standards compliance.

Proper rendering of the Acid2 test -- which is supposed to look like a yellow smiley face -- indicates full W3C HTML and CSS2 compliance. However, Acid2 is a test put out by a standards advocacy group, instead of the W3C itself, so it's not used to certify standards compliance. In this instance, passing the Acid2 test simply indicates that IE8 will have better standards support than its IE predecessors.

Passing Acid2 is quite an accomplishment. Few browsers today can do it -- the chosen few include Konqueror 3.5, Opera 9, Firefox 3 beta 1 and Safari.

As of November 2007, IE weighed in with 77 percent browser share compared to 16 percent for Firefox and 5 percent for Safari. Opera and Netscape garnered 0.65 percent and 0.60 percent respectively. That showed some movement from the year-old figures that pegged IE at 81 percent and Firefox at 14 percent. Safari was at 4 percent and Netscape at 0.85 percent.

AOL LLC officially pulled the plug on Netscape Navigator late last month. As of Feb. 1, AOL, which acquired Netscape Communications in 1998 for $4.2 billion, will no longer support the once-dominant Web browser. Netscape's decline began when Microsoft started offering IE for free, a move that contributed to the now infamous antitrust case against Redmond.

IE Iterations
Microsoft now finds itself again defending its business model with IE. Opera, a small browser player out of Norway, has petitioned the European Commission to sanction Microsoft for its refusal to comply with standards. But Microsoft last month boasted that its nascent IE 8 passed the "Acid2 Browser Test" by the Web Standards Project, an important milestone for a company that has been accused of subverting key standards rather than supporting them (see "IE Passes Acid Test," this page).

When IE came on the scene years ago in the first major browser battle against Netscape Navigator, there were no standards for such things as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) and Really Simple Syndication (RSS). That means many legacy PCs running old IE browsers don't support those standards. This is not a trivial matter. Data from shows that a significant portion of IE users are on version IE6 or earlier versus the current IE7.

Browsers at War
This browser battle is anything but academic for developers who want their Web-based applications to be viewable and usable from PCs of all ages and provenance.

"You don't want your app to break when it gets out there," says Peter Eddy, a developer with Art Technology Group Inc. (ATG), based in Cambridge, Mass. "Unfortunately, it's pretty expensive to do that testing, especially with Windows where there are a lot of versions of IE, so you need to do a lot of tests."

His company internally tests against IE and Firefox, but customers who use ATG's products to create their own Web applications may have to do more extensive testing on fringe browsers, depending on their target audience.

About the Author

Barbara Darrow is Industry Editor for Redmond Developer News, Redmond magazine and Redmond Channel Partner. She has covered technology and business issues for 20 years.

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