Buggy Browsers

posted 16 April 2002

You know what I really hate?

You DON'T? Are you BLIND? There's a whole SECTION for stuff I hate! Yes, anyway, what I really hate just at this moment is buggy browsers. But let's start at the beginning.

  1. Where browsers came from
  2. How browsers developed
  3. The present and forward

Where browsers came from

According to all the Histories of The Internet that I just finished reading, the first web browser was created way back on or around January 12th 1992. Funny, isn't it, to think that the web didn't exist until then? Up to a year later, there were a grand total of 50 HTTP hosts -- so your bookmark file didn't have to be all that big, to tell you the truth. In September 1993, Marc Andreesen's brainchild Mosaic -- the first graphical web browser, the previous ones were text-based and command-based -- was released for Mac and Windows (it had been released for X-Windows, on UNIX, in January).

It's pretty obvious to me that that was when the "big boom" started... a timeline of the Internet will show nothing more than a hissing fuse of servers until then, when the 'net grew more than 340,000% annually. There was no warning, and little expectation, and absolutely zero preparedness. So I guess I can't blame the browsers for being so crummy, but maybe they could have used a little more common sense.


How browsers Developed

When baby Marc [Andreesen] started Netscape in 1994, he knew he was on to a good thing. The standard for web pages was HTML, which at that time was an extremely simple language that barely required a computer to interpret. With no standards body and nobody to stop him, he freely added to this language to give it to more capability -- and this was a good idea, and his innovations are the main reasons the web is so much fun. He created the ability to put images on pages, and the ability to make tables (still one of the cornerstones of all web design), and added all sorts of cool things like frames and forms and basically everything we now use on a regular basis in our websites.


However, he -- or Netscape in general -- began to get carried away. By late 1996, standards were forming, and Microsoft's horribly catch-up attempt at a web browser was on the horizon. There was also a group, the W3C, which since August 1994 had been trying to bring coherence to the language, and was beginning to suceed. Heady with being the market leader, Netscape continued to come out with new tags (or extensions to HTML) without notifying or consulting the public first. This led to such things as the unanimously-voted Most Annoying Tag Ever -- BLINK -- and widespread incompatibilities with Microsoft's Internet Explorer, which through admittedly unfair marketing techniques was gaining ground. Microsoft, ever-ready to maintain its reputation as the quintissential Big Evil Corporation, was doing exactly the same thing, with fun and easy but technically irresponsible tags such as MARQUEE (which made a line of text scroll across your screen) and BGSOUND (which allowed you to add background sounds to your pages, subverting Netscape's pre-existent EMBED tag, which allowed you to embed ANY multimedia, INCLUDING background sounds, but which was harder to implement).


The incompatibilities worsened steadily into versions 3.0 of the browsers. People began to make double pages -- one version for Netscape, and one for MSIE. Or, worse, they would stick an obnoxious little "Designed for X browser" logo at the bottom of their page, as if alienating close to half your audience was somehow a loyal and worthy thing to do. If Microsoft wasn't so nasty, maybe this wouldn't have happened, and people would have tried to adopt both, but the Microsoft-hating loyal Netscape users started the custom, and newly-converted MSIE people struck back in kind. And, of course, Netscape didn't like Microsoft very much for giving away it's browser while Netscape was just climbing into the black with its $50 price tag. So the companies began to make incompatibilities on PURPOSE (all though neither would admit it) to force loyalties. This backfired, and instead everybody got really pissed off with them both, and demanded some order.


Any sane person would have seen that the best thing to do for version 4.0 in light of these events was for both companies to throw their weight behind the W3C, tell it come out with a standard version chop chop, and produce browsers to match. This didn't happen, for several reasons:

  1. The W3C didn't have the confidence of anyone right then. They'd managed to go seriously astray in producing version 3.0 of HTML, which had been so completely unworkable that it had been totally abandoned. They were working on version 3.2, but it wasn't going to happen for a while.
  2. NS and MS were in a competitive frenzy. They couldn't stand around waiting for W3C to blow its nose, far less make a standard, or the other would release version 4.0 first. And they hated each other's guts, so cooperation without a third party was out of the question.
  3. Browsers based on a single standard would have to compete in other ways -- ease of use, reliability, speed of operation, price, and features additional to web browsing such as FTP, IRC, News and E-mail. This did not sit well with either company: both version 3.0 browsers were huge, slow, buggy pieces of shit, and their preliminary forays into versions 4.0 were equally bad.
  4. Both companies were still operating under the ethos that He Who Makes the Best Tags Wins. This was, in fact, no longer the case. By version 4.0, just about anything was going to be possible -- people were able to do whatever they wanted to do with their documents. Getting them to do it reliably, on the other hand, and on both browsers simultaneously, was a task even God had only managed to do once, and he took it down because the page was boring. Additionally, new tags were becoming rapidly passé, with the technology diverging into HTML for logical structures, style sheets for presentation, and JavaScript (or, if you were a power-hungry evil monopoly, VBScript).
  5. And of course, because everybody knows business people aren't sane. Don't you read Dilbert?

The Present and Forward

So the versions 4.0 of the browsers are a huge mess. They have advanced capabilities, but they don't work together, so it's still often necessary to make double-scripts and double-pages to get a site to work. And, as a web developer, that really, really, really pisses me off.

That's bile for now.


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