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There's more to life than Microsoft Internet Explorer - a brief overview of the different web browsers your site visitors are using.

When it comes to using web sites there are plenty of web browsers that can be used. Everyone’s heard of and probably used Microsoft Internet Explorer. Most people are probably aware of Firefox and may well have used it. But what about Safari? Or Opera? Or Netscape, or Flock, or Camino, or Omniweb, or Konquerer, or Epiphany, or K-Meleon, or Lynx?

There’s a whole world of choice out there. So, why do people use these weird and wonderfully named browsers? Why doesn’t everyone just use Explorer?

Let’s return to that list of browsers and look at each one in a little more detail.

Microsoft Internet Explorer
Anyone using a Microsoft Windows PC will be familiar with this browser - and that means most people. Explorer is the default web browser supplied with Microsoft Windows and for quite a while has been the most commonly used browser around. It wasn’t always like this but that’s a topic for another article sometime. Explorer is currently at version 6 and is a capable enough web browser. It’s a bit long in the tooth, has a bad reputation for security problems, and has its fair share of rendering ‘quirks’. Microsoft is currently busy readying version 7 which should address some of these issues whilst adding a variety of new features.

Whilst the vast majority of people will be familiar with the Windows version of Explorer there is also a version for Apple Macintoshes.
This is no longer supported by Microsoft but roll back a few years and it was one of the most innovative browsers around. Many features which are now taken as granted originated in the Macintosh version of Explorer. However, it hasn’t aged well and is no longer developed by Microsoft. Apple’s own browser called ‘Safari’ has effectively killed it off.

Explorer is not available on other platforms, such as Linux, without using a Windows emulator or similar.

Firefox has been steadily eating away at Explorer’s market share and, depending on whose figures you believe, now holds somewhere between 5 and 20% of the overall market. Firefox grew out of the ashes of the venerable Netscape browser and is controlled by the Mozilla foundation 1, a non-profit corporation.

Firefox is based around the Gecko rendering engine. This is the system that turns all the HTML, JavaScript, and CSS into the web page you can see and interact with. Like Explorer, Firefox is free. However, unlike Explorer, Firefox can run on Windows, Apple Macintoshes, Unix systems, and Linux systems. It has become well known for amongst other things, its use of tabbed browsing and the implementation of a pop-up window blocker and its ability to support third party extensions which can be used to add other features to the browser. These have proved very popular and can be freely downloaded.

Firefox can also boast better support for web standards than Explorer. However more web sites in existence today were built with Explorer primarily in mind than any other single browser.

Many people claim that Microsoft kick started development of version 7 of Explorer after a long period of inactivity with version 6 as a direct response to the increasing popularity of Firefox.

Apple launched version 1 of Safari in June 2003. Until this time users of Apple Macintosh machines had to rely on Microsoft’s Explorer or one of several other more obscure browsers. Safari has quickly gained ground and according to many statistics is the third most popular browser in use today. Since April 2005 Safari has been the
only web browser bundled with the Mac OS X operating system.

Safari is based upon the open source Konquerer browser and its KHTML rendering engine and its features support; tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking, and has good support for web standards. Indeed Safari was the first browser to pass the Acid22 test that identifies rendering errors in web browsers.

However Safari is only available on Mac OS X.

Opera is a suite of products that can be used for Internet related tasks, including e-mail, online chat, and web browsing. There are versions of Opera for Windows, Mac OS X, UNIX, and Linux and it is also available on some mobile phones and PDAs.

Opera uses its own rendering engine to actually process web pages and Version 9 passes the Acid2 test. Despite this it is not uncommon to encounter problems viewing certain sites, especially with older versions of the browser.

Opera offers a lot of features for altering the way in which pages are displayed. These include tools to zoom in and out of pages, emulate small screens (as found on phones and PDAs), and control how images are displayed. It was one of the first browsers to support tabbed browsing and also offers pop-up blocking which can be customised to behave in a number of ways.

Opera was a commercial product for a long time but since September 2005 has been available free of charge.

Netscape Navigator was the browser back in the ‘90s. By 2002 Explorer had pretty much wiped it out. There were many reasons for this but the fact that Explorer came bundled with Microsoft Windows certainly contributed to Netscape’s downfall. In 1998 Netscape released the source code for the browser and this mutated into the Gecko rendering engine now used by Firefox and others. Netscape still lives on however and is currently at version 8.1. It is now essentially a branded version of Firefox and is maintained by AOL. Current versions of Netscape Browser are only available for Microsoft Windows.

Flock is another browser based upon Firefox and the Gecko rendering engine. Flock’s claim to fame is its close integration with various web services for tasks such as blogging, book marking, news aggregation, and image sharing. For this reason its creators call it the “social browser”. For more information see the last netXtra newsletter issue’s article on Flock.

Camino is a Mac OS X native version of Firefox. Firefox implements its own system for drawing windows and buttons and this is one of the reasons it works on so many systems - it doesn’t utilise or rely on the underlying operating system. This means it looks and works the same on Windows, Macs, and so on. However, this has the downside that it doesn’t work like other Mac software and can feel a bit strange next to more conventional Mac applications.

Camino takes the underlying rendering engine from Firefox and wraps it in a more traditional Mac interface. The result is a browser with good support for web standards, common features such as tabbed browsing, and a familiar Macintosh look and feel. Camino is only available on Mac OS X.

OmniWeb uses the same rendering engine and core system as used by Safari. OmniWeb builds on this by implementing many interesting and useful interface features. It supports tabbed browsing but instead of using little tabs to represent each web page being viewed it uses an actual graphical representation - like a mini screen grab. It also offers a lot of customisation options so you can control many of the background details that effect how pages are processed.

OmniWeb is one of the few browsers that are not free. It currently costs $29.95. Unsurprisingly its take up rate is rather limited but it does have a core of loyal fans. OmniWeb is only available on Mac OS X.

Konquerer is part of the K Desktop Environment (KDE)3 and provides a file manager along with the web browser. It is free and runs on most UNIX alike operating systems. It is not available on Windows and is based around the KHTML4 rendering engine as used by Safari. Konquerer is however built in a modular way - even to the extent that the rendering engine can be replaced by the Gecko engine as used by Mozilla.

Konquerer can sometimes struggle with the use of certain plug-ins on web sites - such as those used to display movies and animations.
KHTML is also in use by Nokia in their series 60 mobile phones.

Epiphany, like Firefox, is based on Mozilla’s Gecko rendering engine and is the web browser provided with the GNOME desktop environment 5 as used on many Linux systems. Epiphany is not available on Windows. One of the key aims of Epiphany and its predecessor Galeon, is to focus purely on web pages and not clutter the browser with other functionality.

Epiphany features a powerful book marking system where bookmarks (or favorites) can be stored in multiple categories.

K-Meleon is another browser based on the Gecko rendering engine. In a similar way to how Camino provides a more familiar Mac interface on top of Gecko, K-Meleon provides the same for Microsoft Windows. This allows the browser to be tightly integrated with the underlying operating system. The end benefit being a more responsive browser that is well suited to older and low powered computers.

Whilst K-Meleon offers a flexible interface that can be heavily customised - to do so requires editing configuration files manually and it is a relative new comer. Version 1 has only been available since July 2006.

Lynx is a bit different to the other browsers detailed here in that it is a text-only browser. There is no support for images or multi- media of any kind. Navigation around web sites is achieved using the keyboard. It is available on most systems with versions available for
Windows, Mac OS X, UNIX, and Linux.

As a text browser it was popular with visually impaired users but more recently screen readers that actually read aloud the text of web pages have taken its place. It is however still a useful tool for web developers to use when appraising accessibility issues.

So many browsers!
With so many options available it’s important that web sites are not built to assume any given browser will be used to view them. Whilst the vast majority of visitors will come to your site using Explorer or Firefox there will still be a significant number of people using
alternatives. Even if individual web browsers don’t achieve large market shares they become more significant when taken as a whole.

Some concrete figures
Taking the statistics from one site hosted by netXtra which has visitors from all around the world you can see how important it is to cater for as many browsers as possible.

The site in question gets approximately 150,000 page views a month from 16,500 unique visitors. This is ignoring search engine spiders and other non human accesses. Explorer accounts for 83.8% of these with Firefox accounting for a further 8.7%. That leaves 7.5% for other browsers. That equates to 11,250 page views or around 1240 unique visitors each month.

If you ran a shop on the high street you wouldn’t consider turning away every 13th person that entered the store (would you?).

The past, the future
It’s also important to remember that the situation is changeable over time as well. Witness the rapid increase in the popularity of Firefox or go back a few years and recall when Netscape Navigator was the undisputed top dog. With increased access to web sites from mobile phones and PDAs the number of ‘alternative’ browsers hitting web sites is only likely to continue to increase.

It’s important as ever to make sure web sites are created for the largest possible audience. This means creating sites using standard based code. This means making sites as accessible as possible. This means making web sites for everyone.

And at netXtra that’s exactly what we try to do! For further information email or call 01787 319393

1) The Mozilla Foundation

2) Acid2 Browser Test

3) KDE



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