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What is a Browser?
May 7, 2012
Unless you never access the web at all, you probably use a Browser, even if you do not know what one is. If you use your computer to visit Facebook, Wikipedia, Ancestry or any other of the thousands of very popular sites on the web, the specific software you use is, generically, called a “Browser”. If you use a Mac, you probably use something called “Safari”, which is a decent enough browser, but there are many other choices available to you. Safari is provided by default by Apple and is available on all Mac computers, as well as on the iPad and iPhone in a mobile form.
If Safari is not your Browser, more than likely you use a PC. Microsoft Windows includes Microsoft's own browser, which is called “Internet Explorer”. It is also commonly called “IE”, sometimes “MSIE” or often just “Explorer”, but there is also a “File Explorer” which makes for some degree of confusion. File Explorer has nothing whatever to do with the Web and we won't address it now.
Microsoft introduced IE in 1995 as an add-on to Windows 95 just at the beginning of the appearance of the Web in the mind of the general public. Even so, Microsoft was late to the party, as although the general public was just becoming aware of the web, it had already been around a while, and there were already other browsers available.
The first browser appeared in 1990, written by researcher Tim Berners-Lee. It was called simply “WorldWideWeb”, but was soon renamed “Nexus”. In 1992, the University of Illinois, in the National Center for Supercomputing Alliance (NCSA) developed a very advanced, graphical browser known as “Mosaic”, which was licensed to a company called Spyglass. In 1993, Marc Andreesen wrote and released a browser he also called “Mosaic”, but which soon became known as “Netscape”. It became the first popular browser. By 1994, Netscape was the name of his company, and the platform was known as “Netscape Navigator”. For a while Navigator totally dominated the web browser market.
In late 1994 Microsoft licensed technology from Spyglass, Inc, which had rights to NCSA Mosaic (Not the Netscape browser, rather the one developed in Illinois at the NCSA) and built their first browser which they introduced as Internet Explorer in 1995.
In 1998 Netscape launched what became known as the Mozilla Foundation, to develop a competitive browser using the open source software model. Their browser became known as Firefox. In many ways, Firefox is the continuation of the Netscape line, reborn as an open-source platform. Further, the open-source Mozilla technology is the genesis of many new browsers, including Google's Chrome.
Apple was even later to the browser market, introducing their proprietary browser Safari in 2003. Microsoft had marketed a version of IE to Mac users, but that is now discontinued. Apple however offers Safari to PC users.
So you can see, the market is very convoluted. There are two big closed-source, proprietary players, Apple and Microsoft, and two big open-source players, Firefox and Google, both of which use the original open-source Mozilla technology. There are a slew of smaller, less well-known browsers most based on Mozilla, of which Opera is the most notable.
A browser is fundamentally a marriage of two general technologies. The user-facing technology is basically software designed to display any file format given, from text, to tables, to images, to animation, video and even audio. You can view almost anything in a browser. Those things it cannot handle directly, it can handle by way of “plug-ins” which is merely a technique for allowing other software modules that are not a part of the browser to work with it. For example, most browsers use plug-ins to display Flash animations and PDF files.
The other general technology in a browser is network facing, and is essentially communications technology, designed to support different protocols and network access methodologies for communications. This includes file transfer protocols for downloading files, encryption protocols for secure connections, streaming protocols for media and many more.
In the early days of mainstream computing, programs such as word processors and spreadsheets were the major applications used by computer users. Today, in our web-centric world, the most popular program is the browser. Choosing and using the best browser for the job will enhance not only your user experience, but perhaps even improve safety and security. As all the vendors vie for your patronage, they continually leap-frog one-another in the race to provide the best web experience and to capture the eyeballs of the users.
Things are evolving rapidly in the browser wars, and the user benefits from rapidly improving performance and security. It is my recommendation that users install all of the popular browsers and try them out, use the one that you like best, but be quick to try each new one that is offered. Each new Browser has something to offer. Try them out, and do not become “stuck” on a single one.