Back to the Browser Wars?

Some of you might be too young to remember this, but several years ago, there was the “Great Browser War”. Two browser manufacturers — Netscape and Microsoft — were vying for market share, and web designers such as myself were caught in the crossfire. Each company was trying to prove that their browser was the latest and greatest, and so they began stuffing all sorts of proprietary features into their programs.

It got so bad that if you wanted your website to work consistently for as many folks as possible, you had to create two versions of your site, one optimized for Netscape’s Navigator and another optimized for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. And since this all happened before content management systems such as ExpressionEngine, Movable Type, and WordPress were widely available to the common man, that meant twice as much content to maintain and update.

Needless to say, this was a giant snafu. Fortunately, the war has mostly died down within recent years. Microsoft won the first browser war and Netscape, though still putting out browsers, has faded away from the minds of most folks. Other browsers, such as Firefox and Safari, have emerged and many folks, realizing their superiority over Internet Explorer, have switched. Due in part to these newer browsers, web standards have gained more and more support, with even Microsoft finally taking notice of them.

In short, while being a web designer still does entail a certain amount of swearing thanks to browser incompatibilities and inconsistencies — thanks, in large part, to Internet Explorer — it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be.

Which is why reading this article, which looks at the next versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer, sent chills down my spine, and not the good kind. Specifically, this closing statement filled me with some dread:

So if anything, I’d hazard a guess and say that IE8 will head back into ProprietaryLand — leaving Firefox to become more of a vehicle for independent web services, particularly those from Google. While IE7 and Firefox 2 were more alike than different (feature-wise they’re practically identical!), with IE8 and FF3 we will likely see the two biggest browsers head off into different directions.

On the one hand, it’s always great to see browsers innovate and add in new features (tabbed browsing, RSS integration, anti-phishing techniques, etc.). The more competition between browsers in this regard, the better it is for us, the consumers, because we end up with better browsers on our machines (that’s the theory, at least).

On the other hand, that word “proprietary” should send shudders down the spine of every web designer out there. We already took a beating back in the late ’90s thanks to the browsers’ proprietary nonsense. That’s why it’s been such a blessing that web standards have become as prevalent as they are, and their acceptance and usage continues to grow. For lack of a better word, web design is “fun” again. Sure, there’s still plenty of frustration, thanks in large part to Internet Explorer’s still-dodgy implementation of web standards. But it’s getting better. However, this proprietary stuff could toss all of that back into the crapper.

Admittedly, noone knows the final form that the next versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox will take, so much of this is still speculation. But browser manufacturers are in the business of gaining marketshare, and if that means going their own way, then so be it.

However, as someone who has already devoted more of their life than should have been necessary to wrangling with web browsers and their petty inconsistencies, any time I see the word “proprietary” mentioned in conjunction with a web browser, especially one coming from the Redmond, Washington area, I throw up in my mouth a little bit.