A web browser is a software package that enables a user to display and interact with documents hosted by web servers. Popular browsers available for personal computers include Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera, and Safari. A browser is the most commonly used kind of user agent. The largest networked collection of linked documents is known as the World Wide Web.
Protocols and standards
Web browsers communicate with web servers primarily using HTTP (hyper-text transfer protocol) to fetch web pages. HTTP allows web browsers to submit information to web servers as well as fetch web pages from them. As of writing, the most commonly used HTTP is HTTP/1.1, which is fully defined in RFC 2616. HTTP/1.1 has its own required standards which Internet Explorer does not fully support, but most other current-generation web browsers do.
Pages are located by means of a URL (uniform resource locator), which is treated as an address, beginning with http: for HTTP access. Many browsers also support a variety of other URL types and their corresponding protocols, such as ftp: for FTP (file transfer protocol), gopher: for Gopher, and https: for HTTPS (an SSL encrypted version of HTTP).
The file format for a web page is usually HTML (hyper-text markup language) and is identified in the HTTP protocol using a MIME content type. Most browsers natively support a variety of formats in addition to HTML, such as the JPEG, PNG and GIF image formats, and can be extended to support more through the use of plugins. The combination of HTTP content type and URL protocol specification allows web page designers to embed images, animations, video, sound, and streaming media into a web page, or to make them accessible through the web page.
Early web browsers supported only a very simple version of HTML. The rapid development of proprietary web browsers (see browser wars) led to the development of non-standard dialects of HTML, leading to problems with Web interoperability. Modern web browsers (Mozilla, Opera, and Safari) support standards-based HTML and XHTML (starting with HTML 4.01), which should display in the same way across all browsers. Internet Explorer does not fully support HTML 4.01 and XHTML 1.x yet. Currently many sites are designed using WYSIWYG HTML generation programs such as Macromedia Dreamweaver or Microsoft Frontpage. These often generate non-standard HTML by default, hindering the work of the W3C in developing standards, specifically with XHTML and CSS (cascading style sheets, used for page layout).
Some of the more popular browsers include additional components to support Usenet news, IRC (Internet relay chat), and e-mail. Protocols supported may include NNTP (network news transfer protocol), SMTP (simple mail transfer protocol), IMAP (Internet message access protocol), and POP (post office protocol).
Tim Berners-Lee, who pioneered the use of hypertext for sharing information, created the first web browser, named WorldWideWeb, in 1990 and introduced it to colleagues at CERN in March 1991. Since then the development of web browsers has been inseparably intertwined with the development of the web itself.
The explosion in popularity of the web was triggered by NCSA Mosaic which was a graphical browser running originally on Unix but soon ported to the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows platforms. Version 1.0 was released in September 1993. Marc Andreesen, who was the leader of the Mosaic team at NCSA, quit to form a company that would later be known as Netscape Communications Corporation.
Netscape released its flagship Navigator product in October 1994, and it took off the next year. Microsoft, which had thus far missed the Internet wave, now entered the fray with its Internet Explorer product, hastily purchased from Spyglass Inc. This began the browser wars, the fight for the web browser market between the software giant Microsoft and Netscape, the start-up company largely responsible for popularizing the World Wide Web.
The wars put the web in the hands of millions of ordinary PC users, but showed how commercialization of the internet could stymie standards efforts. Both Microsoft and Netscape liberally incorporated proprietary extensions to HTML in their products, and tried to gain an edge by product differentiation. The wars effectively ended in 1998 when it became clear that Netscape's declining market share trend was irreversible. This was in part due to Microsoft's integrating its browser with its operating system and bundling deals with OEMs; the company faced antitrust litigation on these charges.
Netscape responded by open sourcing its product, creating Mozilla. This did nothing to slow Netscape's declining market share. The company was purchased by America Online in late 1998. At first, the Mozilla project struggled to attract developers, but by 2002 it had evolved into a relatively stable and powerful browser suite. Mozilla 1.0 was released to mark this milestone. Also in 2002, a spin off project that would eventually become the popular Mozilla Firefox was released. In 2004, Firefox 1.0 was released. As of 2005, Mozilla and its derivatives account for approximately 10% of web traffic.
Opera, a speedy browser popular in handheld devices and in some countries was released in 1996 and remains a niche player in the PC web browser market.
The Lynx browser remains popular in the Linux market and with vision impaired users due to its entirely text-based nature. There are also several text-mode browsers with advanced features, such as links and its forks (Elinks is the most popular).
While the Macintosh scene too has traditionally been dominated by Internet Explorer and Netscape, the future appears to belong to Apple's Safari which is based on the KHTML rendering engine of the open source Konqueror browser. Safari is the default browser on Mac OS X.
In 2003, Microsoft announced that Internet Explorer would no longer be made available as a separate product but would be part of the evolution of its Windows platform, and that no more releases for the Macintosh would be made. However, more recently in early 2005, Microsoft changed its plans and announced that version 7 of Internet Explorer would be released for its Windows XP and Windows 2003 Server operating systems in addition to the upcoming "Longhorn" operating system.
Web and web browser features
Different browsers can be distinguished from each other by the features they support. Modern browsers and web pages tend to utilize many features and techniques that did not exist in the early days of the web. As noted earlier, with the browser wars there was a rapid and chaotic expansion of browser and World Wide Web feature sets. The following is a list of some of these elements and features:
Opera's "Small-Screen Rendering" is a special way to reformat webpages to fit inside the small screen width of a smartphone, thereby eliminating the need for horizontal scrolling.
Web browsers by usage share
The following data, obtained by onestat.com, shows the proportion of users using each of the popular web browsers. The data, collected in November 2004, was obtained by looking at the user agent string of 2,000,000 users visiting a variety of different websites from 100 countries. 
(It should be noted that these statistics cannot be relied upon as a 100% accurate reflection of actual usage, because of something called "User agent spoofing". Sometimes, non-IE browsers are configured to "lie" about their identification, in order to access sites that would otherwise block them. Therefore, it is likely that Microsoft's Internet Explorer is slightly less dominant than these numbers show)
Microsoft Internet Explorer-based browsers: 88.9% (93.9% in May 2004)
- Version 6.0: 80.95% of total
- Version 5.5: 4.18%
- Version 5.0: 3.66%
Mozilla-based browsers (including newer versions of Netscape): 7.35% (2.1% in May 2004)
- Mozilla Firefox 0.10 (Preview of 1.0): 2.79%
- Mozilla 1.x: 2.77%
- Mozilla Firefox 1.0: 1.79%
- Version 7.x: 1.29%
- Safari: 0.91%
- Other browsers: 1.51%
The dominance of Internet Explorer has started to decline with the introduction of the Firefox browser. Over the second half of 2004 Mozilla Firefox has been grabbing usage share from Microsoft's Internet Explorer at a rapid pace, nearly doubling its percentage of users in less than 6 months .
Usage statistics vary highly from site to site. For example Opera has almost 20% usage share on Russian and Norwegian Wikipedia.
Last updated: 10-16-2005 11:50:47