Web browsers

Web browsers are (quite literally) the defining feature of the World Wide Web, which was invented when Tim Berners-Lee released the first version of his HTML browser (World Wide Web) on Christmas day 1989. In other words, they are what makes the web the web.

For a variety of historical reasons, users tend to treat web browsers as utility-grade software—a part of the operating system they expect our devices to have already installed rather than a piece of software you choose to install and run. But more than one kind of browser exists and there are differences between them. Sometimes one browser is better than another for certain tasks or sites. You should know what browser you are using and you should make sure you have some alternates installed.

What browser am I using?

It is entirely possible that you don’t know what browser you are using to access the web (including this page). If you don’t, you can find out here: whatbrowser.org. This page will tell you which browser you are using, whether it is up-to-date and what other options (if any) exist for your operating system.

What browsers are available?

Browsers can be programs you have to start up on your own or built into other programs or applications. The number of choices available to you depends on the operating system you are using (i.e. Mac OS, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS, and so on). The most common full-service browsers are:

  • Firefox (Mozilla). Operates on most major OS, including Mac, Linux, and mobile.
  • Chrome (Google). Operates on most major OS, including Mac, Linux, and mobile.
  • Internet Explorer (Microsoft). Operates on Windows and Mac platforms only.
  • Opera. Operates on most major OS, including Mac, Linux, and mobile.
  • Safari (Apple). Apple and Windows operating systems only.

What does a web browser do?

A web browser is a program that allows you to retrieve, display, and traverse (i.e. navigate) information resources on the World Wide Web (see the Wikipedia article on this).

We think of this as a completely transparent activity, but if you think about it for a second, it is actually a pretty complex idea: a typical web page will have text, images, tables, and perhaps animations, videos, sounds clips, and so on. If you were composing these things, you’d expect to use different software for each: a word processor like Libre Office Text or Word for your text files, a graphics program like GIMP or Photoshop for graphics, a video or sound editor like Audacity for your sound and video files; you wouldn’t expect to have a single “maker program” that allowed you to do everything all at the same time. And yet when you view a web page (really a complex set of text and links to different files and locations on the web) you expect them all to appear on the right place on the screen simultaneously in the way the web designer expected. (Although the very first web browser—Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web—could display text and images together, the earliest widely available browsers—such as Lynx or Gopher—could not. One of the reasons Netscape Navigator proved so popular in the early days of the web was the fact that it could display images and text).

Browsers do what they do through a number of rendering engines and interpreters. When you “visit” a web page (a metaphor we use for the act of downloading files via our browser), the browser reads through the main page at the location and follows links to other resources it is supposed to include: text, images, fragments of text from other sites (i.e. the ads), and meta information about the text and resources it is to display. It then processes these through interpreters and rendering engines and displays them on your screen. It can also place small fragments of code (known as cookies) on your computer to help it remember things about you.

If browsers are free, how do they make money?

Given how complicated browsers are, it is kind of odd that we don’t have to pay for them. After all, we expect to pay for other kinds of software, including our operating systems and programs like Word or Photoshop. And even if we don’t expect to pay for them (as we don’t with Open Source Operating Systems and programs like Linux, Open Office, or GIMP), we expect that to be seen as an alternate business model.

The original business model for browsers assumed that people would pay for them. The original model for Netscape Navigator assumed that the browser would be sold to businesses. At the time, browsers for other computer languages (such as SGML) had to be purchased.

This business model failed to take off, however, as the major browser designers competed for market share (the idea, presumably being to kill off the competition before coming back to charge for use). This led to the browser wars period in which browsers competed against each other in terms of the features they offered (this was worse than it seems: they competed in part by trying to come up with “proprietary features”—i.e. features that only worked with their software. Had this continued to its natural conclusion, the web would have been divided into sites that worked exclusively with one browser or another).

Nowadays, most browsers are funded by donations (e.g. Mozilla, the non-profit organisation behind Firefox) or by selling default access to search engine companies (i.e. the service that your browser chooses to use when you type text into the URL bard). Because the different search engines sell ads, and because most people don’t really think about what happens when they type text into their browsers, it is in the search companies’ interests to ensure that the default setting in your browser is set to point you at them.

Why should I care what browser I am using? Why should I consider having more than one on my system?

Because they are so ubiquitous and so crucial to what we do with our computers, most people don’t give their choice of browser much thought. They use the one that is easiest to access on their computer—usually the one built by the OS manufacturer. This means Internet Explorer on Windows, Safari on Apple, and Chrome on Android and Chromebooks.

There is nothing wrong with this. But it is a good idea to have more than one on your system.

This is because different browsers have different rendering and interpretation engines and understand web pages in slightly different ways. Some browsers are more efficient that others (meaning web pages will load more quickly), some are more standards compliant (meaning they will work better with a variety of different sites), some are better at rendering certain kinds of content than others. Some have more or better plugins. Having more than one browser on your system will give you some options if a website seems sluggish, slow, or looks funny. In some cases (thankfully generally quite rare nowadays) a site will be designed to work with the features of only one browser.

Which is the best?

Each browser has its own strengths and weaknesses. Internet Explorer is famously buggy and non-standards compliant; but many commercial applications are written specifically for it (my university’s financial software, for example, used to work exclusively on Internet Explorer). Firefox is often said to have the most add-ons and plug-ins (Zotero, for example, which is a citation manager I shall be recommending in a future post, runs best in Firefox). Chrome and Opera are both fast, good looking, and easy-to-use browsers that use the same rendering engine. Safari the default browser in Apple is said to be weaker than others in terms of its speed, accuracy, and the number of plugins and addons it supports.

Personally, I prefer using Firefox, Chrome, or Opera. My default browser is usually Firefox, but occasionally I get tired of that and use Chrome. I do generally recommend that students stay away from Internet Explorer and Safari. In my experience they tend to be noticeably poorer than browsers that are not able to depend for market share on the fact that they are made by the same people who wrote the Operating System your computer uses. If you do any web-programming at all, you should definitely avoid using Internet Explorer as your default, as it is often extremely buggy—but you should also check how your site appears on Explorer for the same reason.

Tips for getting the most out of my browser?

There are various small techniques for getting the most out of your browser, which ever one you use. Search for “[your browser name] tips” to find out quick ways of closing all tabs but the one you are looking at, recovering recent history, organising book marks and so on. Some of these can be worth learning.

Some useful background material is available at techmadeplain.com. For example,

Other useful sites include the Sunspider (a benchmarking site you can use to compare web browsers on your computer in terms of speed and memory use) and “What browser”: http://whatbrowser.org/, which will tell you what you are using, whether it is up-to-date, and what other options are available.

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