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AccessionNo: NYTF000020041011e0ab00027
SECTION: New York Times
Date: 20041011
PUBLICATION: The New York Times
PAGE: 22


Sampling a World of New Ways to Grapple With the Web


At the moment, at least eight different Web browsers reside in my computer.
There's no earthly reason to have so many except for the slightly obsessive
fun of it. And these are just the non-arcane browsers -- the ones that
didn't ask me to install supporting programs I don't understand. I've also
resisted the temptation to build my own browser, which is the kind of
project computer magazines like to publish. I know what my do-it-yourself
browser would look like. The decals would be crooke d and the paint would
have fingerprints on it, just like the model airplanes I built as a kid.

The number and diversity of these browsers is, to me, a very hopeful sign.
Not that long ago, Microsoft and Netscape were fighting for control of the
computer desktop, a battle that still goes on in one form or another.
Microsoft argued that only a browser tightly integrated with the rest of the
operating system could deliver the seamless, gratifying Web-browsing
experience most people hope for.

But Microsoft was wrong. These days, nobody wants to have anything tightly
integrated with the Windows operating system, which has come to seem
surprisingly troublesome. Windows takes a lot of care and feeding, more than
most people want to give it. As for Internet Explorer, it has grown into a
problem in its own right. Software developers complain about it. Ordinary
users get sick of the pop-up fireworks. Even in corporate America -- which
finds its allegian ce to Microsoft routinely tested -- business users are
being asked to switch from Explorer to the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox for
security reasons.

What went wrong with Internet Explorer is a big subject. But one answer,
apart from the mediocrity of the software itself, is that it sided with the
commercial purposes of the Internet and not with the user. Explorer works
like one of those magical doors in a horror movie: open it and the ghosts
come flying in, swirling around your head, threateni ng to suck you into the
maw of chaos. But users want control. They want to believe they have the
power to explore the Web on their own terms. Explorer wants them to sit
still and shut up.

A couple of years ago, I switched from Windows to Apple. The switch was, in
many ways, a revelation. Apple's browser, Safari, seemed astonishingly
polite, almost discreet, after the imperious behavior of Explorer. Switching
to Safari was also a reminder of something that's obvious to computer geeks
but not so obvious to ordinary users. A browser is just a way of putting a
friendly face on code. Nothing more, nothing less. It doesn't have to become
an institution. It doesn't have to metastasize.

I stuck with Safari for a time, largely on the assumption -- as endemic in
the Apple world as it is in Microsoft's -- that somehow the browser built by
the maker of the underlying operating system must be better than all the
others. But switching from Windows to Apple prepared me to keep on
switching. It ta ught me that market share means nothing in terms of
quality. It made me wonder whether there was any inherent advantage in a
browser that happened to be the same brand as the computer that was running
it. The answer, it turns out, is no. These days, there is an array of agile,
interesting browsers.

What's refreshing about these programs is their diversity. The best of them
are astonishingly nimble. They are almost absurdly adaptable to the tastes
and needs of the user. Most are free, and many are open source. They have
none of the monolith about them, none of that feeling of being shackled to a

For a time in the mid-90's, it looked as though the Internet, or at least
the tools we used to view it, would be utterly co-opted by Microsoft and its
essentially mercantile vision of the Web. Microsoft still has an enormous
lead in market share when it comes to browsers. But we've come, in the
browser world, to that memorable moment we came to long ago in the world of
telephones. America woke up one day and discovered that you didn't need a Ma
Bell telephone to use Ma Bell.

(c) 2004 New York Times Company


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