Some of you may notice this site looking rather peculiar in your web browser. While its design is admittedly unusual, if you are using a version of Microsoft Internet Explorer to view this page, then (as of late January 2003) this page is an example to you of what goes wrong when one company's browser can dictate implementation of a standard to users of what ideally should be a free, standards-based means of communication.

In the beginning was the web....

Web pages are written in a descriptive language called Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML for short. The trouble with HTML until about 1994 is that no one could really agree on exactly what instructions consituted HTML and which didn’t, not unlike how there is debate of the legitimacy of the term “ain’t” in the English language. There was an existing specification for HTML, specification 2.0, but that specification was too limited to satisfy the demands of webmasters who wanted to create more and more elaborate pages. Netscape, then the leading supplier of web browsers, created “extensions” to the HTML language that gave these webmasters the power that they wanted; however, this power came at a price to the web community: users using a non-Netscape browser like Mosaic or the then-new Microsoft Internet Explorer were unable to view these “enhanced” pages as their creators intended them. Microsoft introduced their own set of extensions into Internet Explorer (IE), which further complicated a situation from which the web has yet to recover.

The HTML 3.2 specification, introduced in 1996 by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), supplied much of this “missing” functionality in a standardized definition of what and what didn't constitute HTML. This helped to clear up a lot of the confusion and was a big step toward making the web a universally accessible means of communication, not tied into a single browser or proprietary “extensions” to standard protocols like HTML. Since this time, it has been a Good Idea™ to write web pages that conform to HTML specification, and pages that don't either should have a good reason not to do so or are written by lazy programmers.

At this time, in 1996, Netscape and Microsoft were engaged in what was termed the “browser war”; although Netscape's browser was the dominant HTML viewer, Microsoft's browser continued to gain larger shares of the marketplace. Whether by deception, fraud, or just plain-and-simple beating the competition, Microsoft's browser won out and today controls about 90% of web usage. Although version 4 of their browser (IE) was superior to Netscape's version 4, they have since laxed in their support for new standards put forth by the W3C, which means that their version 6 browser only supports the web as it was standardized in about 1999-2000.

Netscape, however, did not rest on their laurels after losing the browser war, and went into a sort of “hibernation” to develop a completely new, fast, standards-based browser for the future. They decided to develop the browser as an open-source project, which means that the code that goes into making the browser is freely downloadable so that anyone can make changes to it or examine it to learn how it works. This development, though, took much longer than initially anticipated, and in one of the most famous internet blunders yet known, Netscape released version 6 of their browser in late 2000. This browser was very buggy and unstable, so it alienated a lot of remaining Netscape users. Netscape continued to refine their code, though, and version 7 of their browser, released in 2002, is stable and reliable.

So, what does all of this mean for this page? When I wrote this page in late 2002, I designed it such that it would conform to modern standards of web design. Many of these standards are not supported in IE as of this writing, which results in the mangled page that you may see now. Microsoft, though, controls such a large share of the market for web browsers that they can effectively dictate, through their software, what constitute working web standards, as opposed to the “idealistic”, open standards that the W3C develops.

My call to you, then, is to take up the good fight for open standards in web development and use a browser that supports a fuller implementation of the W3C's open standards. PC users can use any of these quality browsers: the new Netscape, Mozilla (like Netscape1, but no ads and more full-featured), or Opera. Mac users can use Netscape, Mozilla, Opera, or the new Safari browser that Apple has developed. Users of Linux, FreeBSD, etc. probably know what their choices are. ;-)

1 Mozilla is, in fact, the open-source component of the modern Netscape browser. There exist a number of browsers based on Mozilla such as K-meleon, Phoenix, and Chimera that use Mozilla's basic rendering code, but none of these is “ready for prime time” at this point.