Browsers in 98

Though it may not feel like it, a lot more than the Microsoft antitrust lawsuit went on in the browser market last year. Netscape Communications gave away the source code to its browser. America Online purchased Netscape. Extensible Markup Language (XML) became a standard. A more intelligent browser emerged -- browsers became more aware of the portals that feed them. Netscape Navigator 4.5 was released, and a beta of Internet Explorer 5.0 hit the market. Whew.

Though it may not feel like it, a lot more than the Microsoft antitrust lawsuit went on in the browser market last year. Netscape Communications gave away the source code to its browser. America Online purchased Netscape. Extensible Markup Language (XML) became a standard. A more intelligent browser emerged -- browsers became more aware of the portals that feed them. Netscape Navigator 4.5 was released, and a beta of Internet Explorer 5.0 hit the market. Whew.

Code off-load

Locked in a bitter rivalry with Microsoft and its Internet Explorer, Netscape gave away the source code to its Communicator browser. It did that to encourage innovation from third-party developers, says Ted Schadler, director of software services at Forrester Research. Analysts say that move put Netscape in a difficult financial situation, which explains the AOL acquisition.

XML standard

A standard was approved for XML, a language which was intended to help define and share document information over the Web. It’s going to be more popular on servers than on browsers, says Mike Gotta, an analyst at Meta Group Inc. He says that’s because it’s easier to control servers, and the big value right now is in data exchange. The benefit on the browser will be more precise searches.

Browser advances

Product releases included Navigator 4.5 and a beta of Internet Explorer 5.0 -- which should ship in the first quarter of this year. With those new versions, browsers have become more aware of the portals that feed them, Schadler says.

For instance, Navigator looks back to Netscape Netcenter to find sites. Schadler calls that “tethering,” where a connection persists between the browser and the portal. Microsoft also has tethering, but won’t exploit it the way Netscape will, he says. He expects Microsoft to rely on third parties to do that.

AOL acquired Netscape

“The single most important event in the browser market was AOL’s acquisition of Netscape,” says Andrew Bartels, an analyst at Giga Information Group in Norwalk, Conn. AOL provides a funding source for the continued enhancement and development of Navigator, thus improving the chance of Navigator’s survival, he says.

AOL won’t replace Explorer with Navigator in its AOL product in the immediate future. Instead AOL will start to promote and push Navigator in non-AOL branded sites and services, Bartels says.

The future

Watch for browsers to become more logical and intelligent, analysts say. Browsers will incorporate more server-side functionality.

For example, the browser will be extended on the client to an application administration environment, such as document management on the browser, Schadler says.

He calls that the Internet desktop. And browsers will start to show up on other devices such as set-top boxes, he says. Browsers in general will become more aware of the portals that feed them, he says.

Into next year, Explorer will continue to have the tremendous momentum of being the installed browser that comes with Windows, Bartels says.

But with the backing of AOL, “Navigator will give Microsoft more of a fight for the browser market share of new installations of browsers and is likely to bolster the Netscape usage patterns of customers who have both browsers,” Bartels says.

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