Back to the Bad Old Days of the Web

Much to my chagrin, the browser wars are back. In case you weren’t around the web in the late 1990s, Microsoft sought to dominate the web browser market, then led by Netscape’s Navigator. (The forerunner of today’s Firefox.)

Microsoft achieved dominance through a strategy called “embrace and extend”: their Internet Explorer browser rendered standards-compliant HTML but extended it with “innovative” non-compliant HTML that could only be experienced using IE.

Due to MS’s market dominance (and legally questionable tactics), the Windows version of IE became the dominant browser. This fractured the web. While some sites remained standards-compliant, many others could only be properly rendered with IE.

Many large organizations and governments adopted IE-specific HTML, ceding control of large swaths of the web to Microsoft. Since IE was the only browser that could render all websites, you had to use it — even if you preferred other browsers.

Many sites explicitly required IE — and not just IE, but specific versions of IE. Websites advised users on which browser version they needed to use the site, with links to download the necessary installer.

This was bad for users. It added friction to the experience of browsing the web — or worse. As the owner of a small Mac-based business in Panama at the time, I had to keep at least one Windows-based PC around solely to interact with government websites.

It was also bad for innovation. With little competition, the pace of new feature and security updates slowed. There was a stretch in the early 2000s that felt like a tar pit. (The transition from IE 6 to 7 took five years — a long time in tech.)

The situation started to change for the better after the mid-2000s. The arrival of the iPhone and then Google Chrome began to erode IE’s market share. Mobile browsing opened people’s eyes to the value of a platform-independent web.

Today, the web is less fragmented than it was in the late 1990s/early 2000s. We take for granted opening websites on our laptops, tablets, and phones, and having them look and feel mostly alright without installing other browsers.

But this is changing. As we move more applications to the web, we’re asking browsers to do much more than render content. Some apps work better in some browsers than others. Most these days seem to target Chromium-based browsers.

I use Safari as my primary browser on all my devices. I like how Safari integrates with the rest of the OS, its speed, and privacy features. But, alas, I increasingly have issues rendering websites and applications on Safari.

Some apps have intermittent bugs. Others, such as Zencastr, don’t work at all. (Like the bad old days, Zencastr welcomes Safari users with a request that we use a Chromium-based browser instead.)

I understand why this happens. Chrome’s Chromium engine has features other browsers lack. It’s unreasonable to expect developers of innovative apps to develop for more than one browser, and Chrome has the largest market share.

But still, it makes me sad. We’ve enjoyed a relatively long period when we didn’t have to think about which browser to use. Alas, that period is ending: I must now keep Chrome running all the time, much like I needed that PC in the early 2000s.

Correction: An earlier version of this post suggested there are intermittent bugs with Quickbooks Online in Safari. While I experienced unusual behavior with QBO in Safari (macOS) in the past, I’ve long-since switched to using it only in Chrome. It may be that the app no longer exhibits any issues, but I haven’t tried to use it. I apologize for having inadvertently implied the app may have ongoing issues.