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January 30, 1996

PERSONAL COMPUTING / By PETER H. LEWIS

A Clash of Titanic Web Browsers


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    For many people, Netscape is synonymous with the Internet. The Netscape Communications Corp., whose corporate symbol is a fire-breathing monster nicknamed Mozilla, makes the Netscape Navigator software used by millions of people to operate and browse the Internet's popular World Wide Web.

    But fans of Japanese science fiction films will recall that Mozilla's role model, Godzilla, had some tough fights. Sure enough, a titanic struggle looms between Mozilla and its genetically altered twin: Microsoftra, better known as Microsoft Internet Explorer.

    Microsoft Internet Explorer for the Windows 95 operating system has been around for the last six months. In a welcome bit of good news for Apple Macintosh users, Microsoft has just released a test version of Internet Explorer for the Mac, available at URL: http://www.microsoft.com/windows/ie/mac/macdl.htm.

    "I am pleasantly surprised," said Geoffrey A. Duncan, managing editor of the Macintosh electronic newsletter TidBITS. "For a first beta, it is remarkably flexible and well-rounded. But of course, it does have significant problems."

    Well, even fire-breathing monsters can have bad scale days. And a few problems are to be expected in any pre-release, or beta, program. Netscape's Macintosh browser is also in beta (a second-generation beta, to be sure) and has some kinks to work out.

    The surprising thing is that Microsoft has written such a nice browser specifically for the Macintosh, rather than simply rewritting its Windows 95 browser. That is smart, because even though fewer than 10 percent of all personal computers are Macintoshes, Mac users account for more than 25 percent of all Web visitors.

    "If Microsoft can win over the Mac users, then the rest of the market will be easier to win over," said Glenn Fleishman of Seattle, moderator of the Internet Marketing mailing list on the Internet. He said he found the Macintosh Explorer beta to be fast, compact, meaning it uses less system memory than Navigator, and stable. "It's the first Microsoft application that I haven't had anything really bad to say about at the start," he said.

    Browsers are programs that allow computer users to view and navigate through electronic documents on the Internet'a World Wide Web, one of the most popular and fastest-growing segments of the global computer network. A few years ago there were only a handful of browsers, and all agreed to adhere to a set of standard rules for displaying information.

    Then came Netscape, and the rules changed. Netscape started adding features without waiting for approval from the standards committees. Netscape allowed Web developers to do fancier things with text, like showing boldface type, centering and blinking text. Consumers loved it, developers loved it, and Netscape quickly left all its rivals in the dust.

    Now the race to develop new features is on. Explorer has a splashy feature called scrolling marquees, in which text dances across a Web page. Netscape has blinking text. One can expect the features war to escalate from now on.

    Netscape says its Macintosh browser will soon be usable with the Java language developed by Sun Microsystems Inc., which will greatly expand the kinds of things one can do on the Web. Microsoft has licensed Java but has not made a commitment to include it in Explorer.

    Yet on a technical level, Microsoftra is not quite ready to take on Mozilla, certainly not on the Mac platform. Duncan of TidBITS, a former Microsoft programmer who tortures software for fun, said he can easily make the Mac version of Explorer grind to a halt by messing with its fragile electronic mail and news group features. He reserved special scorn for Explorer's clumsy handling of bookmarks.

    It will be interesting to see how Explorer fares against Navigator in months to come. From a business standpoint, Microsoft is the nightmare opponent for Netscape. It is the most feared competitor in the software industry today, and it has vowed to give away its Internet browser and server software if that is what it takes to dislodge Netscape. Netscape is still a scrappy little start-up company, despite the billions it has garnered in the stock market. It is one of the few companies to have humbled mighty Microsoft.

    And there is a subplot that makes the battle more interesting still. It turns out that Navigator and Explorer were, in effect, twins separated at birth.

    Mosaic was created in the laboratories of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Marc Andreesen, a student researcher at NCSA, created Mosaic and was quickly lured to Silicon Valley by Jim Clark, a successful entrepreneur who promised him a chance at fame and fortune.

    But Andreesen was not the only author, and a few of his colleagues continued to work on the program. Their Mosaic was licensed to a little company called Spyglass, which enhanced it but did not have the marketing muscle to compete with Netscape. Spyglass in turn licensed its Mosaic to Microsoft, with the biggest marketing muscles of all.

    So the browser showdown is set. However it turns out, Microsoft deserves credit for producing a Macintosh Web browser that displays Web pages quickly, is frugal with system memory and is still easy to use. I will be keeping it on my computer alongside Mozilla and hoping that the two do not get into a tussle that cuts my power lines, crushes my hard disk and causes my data to flee in terror.


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