Browser Wars

Or, why government offices have multiple ancient computers, each running a different version of Internet Explorer.

Browser Wars

Or, why government offices have multiple ancient computers, each running a different version of Internet Explorer.

For all its technological prowess, one can’t help but admit that Google comes up with very uncreative names. One finds images through Google Images, reads books through Google Books, and edits documents in Google Docs. YouTube was so named by its three co-founders before it was bought over by Google. So was Lifescape’s photo sharing app Picasa, but it’s been bought and eventually replaced by — you guessed it — Google Photos.

So, in the midst of all these mediocre if descriptive names, how did they come up with something like Google Chrome?

The short answer? They didn’t.

There are two parts to the web browser. One is the big rectangle space where you actually see the page you’re looking at. The other — which includes the tabs, side menu, history, navigation, downloads popup, bookmarks toolbar, and what have you — is called the “chrome”

And Google Chrome is just a chrome that’s made by Google.

While chromes may be interesting in their own way and come with different features to use, what we’re going to focus on is that big rectangle space where you actually see the page. Larger events have taken place behind this rectange — events that have shaped the course of the Internet as we know it today.

In the beginning, the Internet was just a bunch of computers connected with wires. Through the wires, you could see files on other computers and download them to your own device. But what if someone else wanted to catch your attention? That was how email came about: it allowed people to send messages to each others’ computers, possibly with a file attached.

Then came Tim Berners-Lee, who came up with the idea of hypertext — specially formatted files that you could access from other computers without actually saving them, and which could connect together to form a world-wide web. These were made of a special language called HyperText Markup Language, or HTML, which is essentially normal text with some formatting instructions thrown in. It looks something like this:

<p>Welcome to <b><font color="red">You</font>Tube!</b></p>

But you still need something to “render” that HTML into what people actually see:

Welcome to YouTube!

That “something” is the browser engine — the one that draws in our white rectangle space.

In the early days of the World Wide web, there were many browsers to choose from, but you usually had to pay for them. Different browser vendors sometimes used the same engine, but added their own chromes on top — each sporting a different set of extra features. Eventually, one browser turned out to be a bit more popular than the rest: the Netscape Navigator.

At that point, there was another fast-growing company in the software industry, and its name was Microsoft. Initially, Microsoft tried sending their engineers to Netscape to discuss their future with the Web. But things didn’t go well between them, and suddenly Microsoft launched its own browser: the Internet Explorer.

The first version of Internet Explorer was very basic, so Netscape didn’t think much of it. But then, on the 7th of December 1995, the same day Japan attacked Pearl Harbour in World War II, Microsoft CEO Bill Gates held a press conference that started a war of his own.

At the conference, Microsoft unveiled Internet Explorer 2, and their intention was clear. They didn’t want to merely enter the market: they wanted to dominate it.

The First Browser War was on.

What if we told you that that there’s weedicide running through your veins? Right now, at this very moment? It’s a bit of a tangent, but we’re making a point so bear with us.

A 2016 German study found identifiable amounts of the weed-killer glyphosate in the urine of over 99% of urban-dwellers — people who had nothing to do with agriculture at all. Over three-quarters of them showed levels that were higher than the permissible drinking water standard, and over a third were ten times higher than that. Glyphosate is a Class C carcinogen; yet it is on nearly everything we eat or drink: a mainstay staple of farmers in the world today. But that wasn’t always the case.

What changed? The answer is one word: Monsanto.

When agrochemical company Monsanto introduced its signature weedicide Roundup, it was only one of about eight or ten players on the market. Nothing special. Nothing big. At the time, most products were targeted at specific weeds and had to be put in at specific times to work. Most importantly, farmers had to be careful not to put in too much, because that would kill off the plants along with the weeds.

Then came Monsanto’s brainwave: what if they made plants that could resist their weedicide?

A decade and half of research into genetic modification later, the first batch of Roundup Ready soybeans was brought into the market. These soybeans were just like ordinary soybeans, but specially modified to resist Monsanto’s Roundup weedicide. Spray all you want to kill the weeds, but your actual crop would keep on growing.

Monsanto quickly followed up with other Roundup Ready varieities like corn and wheat. By 2006, Roundup help nearly half the market share of weedicide, because it was the only one that worked so well on the crops, and could be used easily by pairing it with Roundup Ready seeds.

People had become reliant on Roundup. And that was exactly what Monsanto wanted.

With their new and improved browser, Microsoft became a real threat to Netscape — not to mention all the other, smaller browsers out there. And, they began aggressive marketing tactics aimed at eradicating Netscape completely.

But Netscape fought back, and for a while they were evenly matched.

One strategy both sides used was to make up their own custom HTML tags. Netscape’s <blink> let text flash and blink on the screen…if you were using Navigator. On Internet Explorer, it did nothing. What did do something on Internet Explorer was their custom <marquee> tag that scrolled sideways like a news ticker. Before long, website developers trying to make websites for both the browsers threw up their hands in despair and started putting up “Best viewed in Netscape Navigator” and “Best viewed in Internet Explorer” banners all over the place.

Eventually, Microsoft won Browser War I by bundling Internet Explorer with all versions of Windows. Most people just stuck with it, because they couldn’t be bothered to change their default.

Netscape went bankrupt, got bought over in 1998, and eventually shut down — but not before they had open-sourced their browser and handed the code to the Mozilla Foundation for safekeeping. By this time, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was enjoying a long period as the top browser on the market. Given its above-90% market share, Microsoft saw no reason to innovate and add new features.

And so, they didn’t.

Over the next few years, Monsanto tightened the noose on farmers. It began to make it difficult for farmers to stop using Monsanto-made seeds. Because the seeds were genetically modified, crop seeds couldn’t be replanted the following year: farmers had to buy from Monsanto again and again, and again.

They also sued farmers that had plants with traces of Monsanto modification but no license; never mind that it had probably blown over from a neighbouring farmer’s field. And as much as farmers may have wanted to change over, there really was no other option.

In short, Monsanto had become the dominant force of the industry, with command not only over weedicide but also seeds. They could and did raise prices and string farmers along as they saw fit.

Monsanto had become a monopoly.

Much like their agricultural counterpart, Microsoft began spending energy on making sure they remained the only player in the market. That included arm-twisting Apple when the company was in a bad financial situation, and mixing the Internet Explorer code with the rest of Windows so it was impossible to uninstall.

The result was one big, bloated browser that wasn’t very well looked after. Even today, those who don’t use Internet Explorer think of it as slow.

But remember Mozilla, the small non-profit foundation to whom Netscape had given their browser code? Mozilla was quietly developing the browser and adding new features. In 2004, they launched the newly rebranded version: Firefox 1.0.

The Second Browser War was on.

Mozilla Firefox stunned the world with a slew of new features. To start with, it was the first browser to support tabs! That’s right: until Firefox, every page you opened had to be in a new window. Coupled with the ability for anyone to make addons, it isn’t surprising that people quickly began downloading it.

Firefox was also a fresh breath of air for website developers. You see, since Internet Explorer was the only browser out there for a while, it didn’t have to worry much about keeping websites running. If they changed the way their engine worked, web developers had to update their HTML to follow suit. The “Best viewed in” banners were back — but instead of different browsers, they now sported different versions of Internet Explorer.

If you go into some government offices, you’ll still find an assortment of ancient computers, each running a different version of Internet Explorer, in order to access a department website that runs in that version and that version alone.

To bring some kind of order into the chaos that was web development, Mozilla teamed up with the Opera Foundation, which was also making its own browser. Together, they created a global standard that all browsers had to adhere to, which specified exactly how something should work and something else shouldn’t.

In September 2010, Internet Explorer’s usage dipped below 50% for the first time. The Second Browser War had been won! Firefox was becoming everyone’s default, and Opera was picking up too. Because Firefox was open source, people were using its engine, Gecko, to make their own spinoff browsers like Epiphany and Midori and the social-media-centric Flock, each tailored to their own users’ needs…

…and then came a new player in the market: Google Chrome. That, it turned out, was a problem.

The weedicide story didn’t go so well. As Monsanto expanded its reach, farmers suddenly began to find, growing in their fields, the same weeds they had originally set out to eradicate. It turned out that these “superweeds” had developed a resistance to glyphosate, and were now happily growing in the fields under Roundup spray as if nothing had happened.

Monsanto had opened fire, and the plants were fighting back.

Of course, there was a limit to the ‘super’ness of these superweeds. They were resistant to glyphosate, but not to other weedicides — which is why Monsanto responded by upgrading their plants to stronger herbicides like 2,4-D and Dicamba. Unfortunately, these herbicides are so toxic that they even affect humans, belonging to a class of chemicals that’s associated with diseases like non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

If you’ve ever tried to use Google Meet on a different browser, then you know that it tends to be a rather glitchy experience. YouTube is slower too, because it uses an outdated version of a library called Polimer that was created by Google itself.

Just like Microsoft and Monsanto, the Google game has become about keeping users in rather than making the product better for them.

Google does innovate and encourage innovation, of course. In fact, at the core of their browser is the open-source Blink engine, which allows other people to easily make their own browsers just as they do with Gecko.

But as a company, they also have other goals in mind: finding ways to collect users’ data, and making business deals with other companies. Chrome now has ad-blockers and other privacy features, but only after Firefox led the way. While Chrome derivatives can use the Blink engine, Google prevents them from using other features like account syncing.

When the Web’s standards committee was wondering what format to use for streaming video, both Google and Microsoft were pushing for the industry standard H.264. The problem was, H.264 was restricted by patents, and couldn’t be used without a license. It was Mozilla and Opera who lobbied to also include the free Ogg format. (Eventually, Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and a bunch of others joined up to create a new format for the next generation of video streaming).

You could say Chrome won this browser war, because, as a final nail in the coffin, Microsoft announced that they’re not going to work on their own browser engine any more. Their new browser, Microsoft Edge, will be powered by the same engine that Google uses: Blink.

In September 2016, German chemical company Bayer announced their intent to acquire Monsanto in a 66-billion-dollar all-cash deal. The deal was completed in 2018 and the name Monsanto was soon removed from products, but names like Roundup, as well as their respective patents, remained with Bayer.

In 2020, Bayer offered to pay more than ten billion dollars to end the tens of thousands of cancer-related lawsuits that had been filed over Roundup. Bayer CEO Werner Baumann said the decision would “return the conversation about the safety and utility of glyphosate-based herbicides to the scientific and regulatory arena and to the full body of science.”

With a clean slate and stocks of new non-glyphosate herbicide at the ready, Bayer was ready to start the process all over again.

With the end of Microsoft’s engine, the fear is that, like Bayer, Chrome too will become an all-powerful monopoly. With only one browser in charge, there’d be nowhere to turn if you don’t like the way it’s behaving, and we wouldn’t be able to stress-test web standards against different options to see if they actually work.

What can one do to help the situation? Use different browsers, of course! Today, there’s a wide variety to choose from, ranging from fast and feature-rich Vivaldi and privacy-respecting Brave to addon have-it-all Waterfox, minimalist Midori, and futuristic crypto-powered Netbox. More browsers make for more diversity, so even if one goes astray the rest will still remain. (Interestingly, one alternative solution to weedicides is permaculture: growing multiple species of crop in a strategically planned fashion, so that weeds don’t have a space to grow at all).

But beware — although some of the browser’s aren’t Chrome, they may still be powered by Chrome’s engine, which, while helping the Web, isn’t helping it all that much. Prefer something powered by the Gecko or Goanna engines, which aren’t so dominant today.

Or to put it in a nutshell: choose with your eyes open, be aware, and don’t Blink.