Choosing a browser used to be simple. You looked at what was available, compared prices and functionality, and made a choice. Or perhaps you just left it to the whim of individual users. Either way, it was not a huge problem to switch from one browser to another or even to support multiple browsers.
Today, the choice has become much more of a strategic issue for most IT departments. Browsers are no longer a single-function utility. Rather, they form the core of an interlocking suite of client-side software, and they are playing an increasingly pivotal role in companies? information strategies.
It is now no longer feasible for a large company to administer and support multiple browsers. Nor can you consider the browser in isolation from the other Internet and intranet tools you deploy. You also need to be aware of the directions in which the browser vendors are heading, and ensure that they are taking you the way you want to go.
There are now really only two credible operators in the browser market. Netscape has for a long time been the outright leader, thanks to the popularity of its Navigator product. But Microsoft is making a concerted effort to overtake it. Starting from nowhere just a few years ago, its Internet Explorer (IE) now has a respectable market share.
Given that copies of browsers are frequently given away ? by ISPs, in bundling deals, on magazine cover disks and so forth ? the market is a difficult one to quantify. Most estimates, however, put the total user base at somewhere between 25 million and 30 million. Research company Dataquest believes that Netscape has 65 per cent of those users, Microsoft 31 per cent and others 4 per cent.
But the trend is very much in Microsoft?s direction. In the past year, the software giant increased its market share by about 50 per cent, according to Dataquest. Thanks to the giveaway pricing of its Internet Explorer, it is likely to overtake Netscape sometime in 1998. In fact, some research companies think that Microsoft will not only lead the browser market, it could virtually wipe out the competition.
But, while the two vendors are fighting over the same prize, their strategies are quite different. Both want to dominate this sector of the desktop market, but they have totally different ideas about how to go about it.
Fully integrated Explorer
Microsoft?s goal is to eradicate the competition, not by selling more licences than Netscape, but by making the browser itself redundant, at least as a distinct product. It aims to do this by weaving browser functionality into the very fabric of the operating system.
For nearly a year, Microsoft has been bundling version 3 of IE with copies of Windows 95 and NT. But its latest offering, version 4, goes much further. Thanks to the way it integrates itself into the Windows shell, Internet Explorer has become part of Windows itself.
Microsoft?s argument sounds compelling. Why use a given interface ? the Windows shell ? to access information on your hard disk and LAN server, and a different interface ? a Web browser ? to reach into the Internet or an intranet? Why should opening and viewing files on a Web site be any different from performing the same tasks on a local disk?
IE4.0 provides a single interface from which users can access all types of information, without regard for where it is located. It does this by using browser conventions ? such as single-clicking on links and typing URL-style addresses, for all basic file manipulation. In this scenario, the entire desktop becomes the Web browser.
Not everyone will feel comfortable with this idea. It?s early days yet (IE4.0 was only released at the end of September), but some users are already finding the tight integration difficult to deal with. And some IT departments, only just recovering from the upheaval of migrating from Windows 3.1, are dreading the thought of users having to adjust to yet another new interface.
Making Web content look the same as local data could turn out be a two-edged sword. The whole point is that users will not need to know where data is located or if they are actually online at any given time. This could work well for people with a constant link to the Internet, but it could prove a nightmare for those who rely on dial-up connections.
Fortunately, the integration between browser and operating system is optional. You can choose to run the two elements in the traditional way, if that better suits your methods of working. But IT departments choosing to take that approach risk placing themselves behind the Windows mainstream, much like those whose users still operate under Windows 3.1.
Capable, compatible Navigator
Netscape?s approach is, of necessity, totally different. It cannot hope to offer the same level of integration with the operating system, so its browser has remained a free-standing program. But it has also become part of an all-things-to-all-people package, offering the maximum functionality on the widest range of platforms.
In this way, Netscape hopes to dominate the client-side market in much the same way that Microsoft Office dominates the world of desktop applications.
Netscape?s offering takes the form of a family of products called Communicator. This is not merely an upgrade to the familiar Netscape Navigator; rather, it is an entire product suite, of which Navigator forms the core. As well as Navigator 4.0, the package includes tools for email, workgroup collaboration, Web authoring and publishing, and push content delivery.
Communicator comes in two flavours. Communicator Standard covers about 90 per cent of the suite?s functionality. Communicator Professional has all the features of Standard, plus a shared calendar tool, an administration module and something called IBM Host On Demand, which is a Java application for accessing IBM data through 3270 emulation.
These components are all tightly integrated with each other. In theory, you can pick the parts of the suite that you like and use them alongside comparable products from other vendors. But this will not always be a sensible approach. For example, you might favour a third-party HTML authoring tool over the supplied Composer module, but because Composer is also the editor for the email client and collaboration tool, it probably makes more sense to use it exclusively.
That said, if you don?t require the full functionality of the suite, it is perfectly feasible to use Netscape Navigator on its own. Version 4.0 of Navigator will continue to be supported as an independent product. It is available for free downloading and in various bundling deals.
Prices, platforms and improvements
Another key difference between the Microsoft and Netscape strategies lies in their approaches to pricing and distribution. Communicator is in essence a retail product, distributed in a shrink-wrapped box. Netscape does not fix recommended UK prices, but single copies typically cost around #39 for the Standard edition and about #49 for the Professional edition.
Internet Explorer, however, is free. Purchasers of new PCs find it pre-installed along with the operating system, while existing users can download it without charge. IT departments can freely distribute copies across the enterprise. Individuals and small businesses often obtain their copies from ISPs, many of whom offer the program as part of their sign-up packages.
Unlike the Netscape offering, IE4.0 is a Windows product, pure and simple, and can only be used with 32-bit versions of that system ? although parts of it will eventually show up as Mac and 16-bit Windows products too. Communicator, on the other hand, is available for a wide range of platforms, including Windows 3.1x, Windows 95, Windows NT 3.51 and 4.0, OS/2, Linux, SCO Unix, Macintosh OS 7.5 and 8.0, Silicon Graphics IRIX, Sun Solaris and several others.
As far as functionality is concerned, the two products have much in common, although the implementation is very different. They both go far beyond traditional Web browsing by also offering integrated email, workgroup collaboration and calendaring, Web authoring and ? increasingly important ? push delivery of information.
The browsers themselves have undergone substantial improvements since their respective 3.x releases. Neither product was noted for its usability ? typically requiring six or more clicks to open a file, compared with just two in a product such as Word. The earlier versions also suffered from difficult navigation and a general lack of customisability.
These issues have been addressed. Menus and toolbars are easier to use, with both products having customisable toolbars. There are lots of seemingly small improvements which, taken together, will help users feel more comfortable. One example of this is the useful ability to view a list of recently visited sites when clicking on the back button. Bookmarks are easier to handle, and navigation is altogether slicker.
Dealing with mail
Further improvements are visible in the respective products? email offerings. In both cases, the previous versions provided a direct route to an email client ? for example, by clicking on a ?mailto? link on a Web page ? but this was to a large extent a separate function. Now, email is more seamlessly integrated with the browser.
Both companies now favour the use of HTML as the default format for mail messages. In essence, this means that messages will look a lot like Web pages, with all the formatting, graphics, hypertext and even Java applets which that implies. This should work well within a company that adopts it as standard, but it could cause headaches for outside mail recipients. Both products allow you to attach plain-text versions of the message, but these do not always show up clearly in other mail readers.
Netscape?s new email client is called Messenger. In line with the company?s goal of supporting open standards wherever possible, it works with the widely recognised IMAP4, SMTP and POP3 protocols. For confidential messages, it offers S/MIME-compatible encryption, and supports digital signatures. It also provides access to LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) directory services to help users locate email addresses within their companies or on the Internet.
IE4.0?s mail client is Outlook Express. As its name suggests, this is a cut-down version of the Outlook program that comes with Office 97. It lacks the full product?s workgroup and PIM functions, but adds several new mail features, including the use of rule-based filtering to store and forward incoming messages (Messenger has a similar feature).
Going beyond simple email, both vendors see workgroup collaboration as a logical extension of browser functionality. Traditionally, these features have been supplied by standalone products, such as Novell?s Groupwise, which were originally designed for use across local area networks. These products have recently been upgraded to allow access to an in-box via a Web browser, but this is something of a bolt-on solution.
With both IE and Communicator, the collaboration tools are properly integrated with the browser. As well as supporting threaded discussions and broadcasts, both products provide a capability for remote conferencing, in which users can browse documents, view a whiteboard, exchange files and talk to each other in real time. Netscape does this through its existing Collabra technology. Microsoft?s equivalent modules are Netshow and Netmeeting.
The needs of Web authors have not been forgotten. Communicator includes an HTML editor called Composer. It supports the usual HTML features, including character and paragraph formatting, styles, image maps, tables and Java applets. Although Composer is a big improvement over the somewhat simplistic editing features of the old Navigator Gold, it is no rival to professional authoring tools such as Hotmetal Pro. Similarly, IE4.0 offers Frontpad, which is essentially a stripped-down version of Microsoft?s Front Page.
The big push
Perhaps the most interesting trend in the browser market is the increased focus on push content delivery, especially in conjunction with offline browsing. The idea is that users will subscribe to the types of information they are interested in, which is then delivered automatically to their desktops according to some pre-defined schedule. It could be used for anything from viewing ticker messages of the latest weather and traffic conditions, to building a database of articles on a particular product or technology.
Both vendors have made strenuous efforts to include transparent push capabilities in their browsers. Microsoft calls its technology Webcasting, while the corresponding Netscape module is labelled Netcaster. Both push clients have well-designed interfaces which should make the scheduling and receipt of content completely intuitive. But the two companies take different approaches, especially with regard to standards. In both products, vertical toolbars are used to display the available information channels. These toolbars have buttons which allow you to add and remove channels, and to configure them ? for example, to specify how often they should be refreshed and how you want to be notified of changes. You can add any compatible content provider to the toolbar, although both vendors list their preferred providers by default.
Once the content is received, it can be displayed in a normal browser window, as a ticker, as a screensaver, or in full-screen mode ? that is, via Microsoft?s Active Desktop or Netscape?s Webtop.
Where the two vendors part company is in their handling of ?meta information?. Loosely defined, meta information is the format in which information providers describe their content. Microsoft relies on its Channel Definition Format (CDF) for this, which means that any provider who wants their content to be available to IE Webcasting clients merely has to provide meta information in a CDF file. This is relatively easy to do. However, CDF is not yet a recognised standard, although Microsoft has submitted it to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for consideration.
Netscape has proposed an alternative to CDF which it calls Meta Content File (MCF). Rather than being based on the presence of a given file, it uses a set of APIs to index and describe the content. This is a more flexible approach, but it could be more difficult for providers to implement.
These differences matter more to content providers than they do the users. Given the size of the market, providers will probably want to support both methods, at least until one or other vendor becomes dominant.
Case study: Navigator for life
?Our decision to go to Netscape was mainly because of its superior support for open standards,? says Russell Ritchie, technical architect at Britannia Life. ?We wanted a single product for all our information needs, and at the time Microsoft?s [Internet Explorer] did not adequately support mail and news, and still isn?t based on open standards to any degree.?
The life assurance and investment company has been using Netscape Navigator for about 15 months, and is now in the process of upgrading to Communicator. The parent group has purchased 3,500 Communicator licences, up to 500 of which will eventually be deployed by Britannia Life.
According to Ritchie, Communicator?s calendar tool will be an important part of the suite, because it will help the company schedule contacts with policy holders. He also expects Collabra to be widely used, especially for team-based policy management.
Communicator will also be a great advantage as it will link counter staff at Britannia Life?s 20 UK branches with the Glasgow head office. Staff will be able to complete a policy application form in front of the customer and transmit it to Glasgow for immediate approval, rather than wait for it to be faxed or posted as was previously the system.
?My advice to others would be not to believe the hype surrounding browsers, and to aggressively pursue open standards,? says Ritchie. ?I firmly believe that Netscape Communicator provides the link to open standards we need, and for that reason should make us future-proof. I have no difficulty in recommending this product.?
Case study: Explorer is nationwide choice
After a brief flirtation with Netscape Navigator 2.0, Nationwide Building Society has placed itself firmly in the Internet Explorer camp. It is currently rolling out IE3 in 700 branches and two administration centres, and is laying plans for a phased move to IE4 at some future date.
According to Peter Snipe, technical consultant and intranet Webmaster, the building society favoured the Microsoft product because of its lower maintenance costs, support for standards, and pricing. ?It?s proved a good way of keeping down costs, and costs are the key in this business. Because of our mutual status, we have to be tight on costs so that we can do our best for our customers.?
The Nationwide is using IE as the front end to two intranet applications. One of them, the Nationwide Web, serves the administration centres in Northamptonshire and Wiltshire. It is used mainly for internal publishing, for example for technical information about the society?s financial products and for documents supporting its ISO 9000 accreditation. The other application is used to distribute information to the branches, and is currently being piloted at four sites.
Although a beta tester for IE4, the Nationwide is not yet ready to deploy this latest version of the browser. That?s because most of its users are still running 16-bit versions of Windows. Eventually, all users will migrate to NT 4.0 and IE4, but no timescale has been decided for the move.
Snipe has no second thoughts about the choice of Internet Explorer. ?There?s real strength in the product, and it is very flexible. There?s no doubt that IE is the place to be.?
The business verdict
For IT departments, choosing a browser today is much harder than it was a year ago. On the one hand, Internet Explorer offers seamless integration with the Windows desktop, making browser functionality more or less transparent. It also has the estimable advantage of being free. But, at present, it has nothing to offer users whose operating system is something less than 32-bit Windows.
Netscape Communicator, by contrast, is available on just about any desktop platform that the average IT department is likely to be interested in. The suite as a whole delivers excellent functionality, with strong support for open standards. And, even though the product is not free, it does offer extremely good value for money.
What?s clear is that you can no longer choose a browser on the basis of price, functionality and usability alone. Indeed, as intranets become increasingly important as application platforms, so the choice of browser is becoming closely tied to the entire information strategy of the enterprise.
It?s going to be a tough decision, and one that you are going to have to live with for a long time to come.
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