Web Browser Evolution
May 21, 2015 2:08 pm
Your web browser is a piece of software that you probably use nearly every day. In order to make the most of this tool, it’s important to know a bit about its history and understand how it works. Let’s take a brief look at the previous era of web browsers, explore today’s browser options and see what the future of web browsing might hold.
Simple browsers existed as early as 1991; by the mid-1990s, two key players emerged in the first round of the so called browser wars: Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE). While Netscape had a strong start and remained the world’s most widely-used browser for quite some time, the release of Internet Explorer 4 was a game-changer for Microsoft. This version of the browser was integrated into Windows, which gave it a huge share of the desktop user market by default. At this time, many computer buyers had little experience using a web browser, so IE was all they knew. Microsoft had other advantages in its quest for dominance, including superior resources. Netscape was a smaller company with shaky finances, and nearly all of its revenue came from Navigator. Microsoft, on the other hand, was able to use its tremendous revenues from Window to fund IE marketing and development.
After IE won out over Navigator in terms of market share, Netscape decided to make open-source its source code, and handed it over to the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. Several years of development followed, and a new browser, Firefox, was released in 2004. It continued to grow in popularity until about 2010, when its share of the browser market leveled off. Google Chrome kicked off the next wave of the browser wars with its release in 2008. Since then, Firefox, IE and other browsers have been in serious competition with Google’s product.
During the years when IE dominated the browser landscape, browsers were considered a “black box”: There was no real way for users to peek inside and figure out how they work. Today, open-source browsers allow us to explore their source code and understand their internal operations.
A key component of any browser is its rendering engine, which is responsible for displaying the requested HTML and images on the browser screen. Rendering engines can display HTML, XML and images by default; with the help of extensions and plug-ins, they can also render data such as PDF documents.
Not all browsers use the same rendering engine. Firefox utilizes Gecko, and Safari uses a different engine called WebKit. Opera and Chrome use of Blink, which is based on WebKit. When a rendering engine is doing its work, it doesn’t make the user wait until it parses a whole document before displaying the contents of a web page. Instead, it will typically parse and display some parts of the content while the rest of the document gets processed.
Although Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer are the main players in today’s browser market, a few newcomers have entered the scene and sparked considerable interest. One of these new browsers is Project Spartan, which is developed by Microsoft. To maximize the speed of this browser, Microsoft stripped a lot of old code out of the rendering engine that powers IE. Power users might be interested in Vivaldi, a browser based on the WebKit rendering engine. Packed with advanced features and settings, Vivaldi will allow users more control over their browsing experience.
Spartan and Vivaldi have garnered plenty of press during their development, but they’re not the only newer browsers on the scene. Several niche browsers are available to cater to particular needs. Torrent is an ad-based browser with a built-in BitTorrent client to help users download and manage their torrent files. Another newcomer called Nitro claims to be the fastest PC browser in the world. Epic, the first browser to hail from India, focuses on privacy: It doesn’t maintain a history, doesn’t allow the installation of plug-ins and enables users to hide their IP address.
Some browsers have millions of users even though they aren’t well-known in the United States. These products have huge followings in China; a few examples are Baidu, UCWeb and Cheetah. UCWeb understands the needs of its Chinese users: Using data-compression technology, it’s able to cut the cost of downloading and browsing, which is important in a country where most users have limited data plans.
The full history of browsers and rendering engines is more complex and colorful than described here. Internet technology moves fast, and browsers are no exception. An excellent illustration of browser and rendering engine development over time can be seen below (click to expand):
We’ve looked at the history of the web browser and examined its current incarnations, but one question remains: What does the future hold for browsers? Will Firefox and Chrome maintain their hold on the market, or will some newer contenders become serious players in the race? Cloud-based browsers may also grow in popularity as users become more proactive about privacy and security. The future of browser development looks exciting, but only time will tell how the competition plays out.