It seems like Web browsers have been around forever. Along with email, a browser is probably the other piece of software that the average computer user fires up every single day. It’s part of the routine.
But browsers have come a long way since 1993, when Mosaic and Arena were the popular point-and-click windows to the World Wide Web. Yes, Netscape Navigator dominated the scene when it arrived in 1994 — the year before Microsoft launched both Internet Explorer and Windows 95. Internet Explorer v. 1 (shown here) was not much to look at, but then again, there wasn’t much to look at on the Web, either.
Time flies. This summer marks the 20th anniversary of Internet Explorer’s debut. IE wasn’t the first graphical browser — nor will it be the last — but it had a hold on the surfing public. At one time around 2002-2003, the program was used by about 95 percent of people surfing the Web. Suffice it to say, that is a dominant piece of software.
The Opera browser, with its small legion of fans, landed in 1996 and Apple’s Safari browser, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome all arrived in the 2000s. Still, Internet Explorer was boss of them all.
As competition for users increased, the capability of the humble web browser began to evolve. New tools like tabs and private browsing modes became commonplace. Add-on extensions for showing the headlines, the weather forecast or even controlling your computer’s music player added to the browser’s functionality. Handy buttons to share links to Twitter and Facebook began to appear. A “reading view” to strip out ads became popular with serious readers. Synchronization between devices — computers. phones and tablets — has made sure we can pick up reading wherever we left off.
Of all the browsers, though, Internet Explorer has been showing age lately, especially in regards to security. Its once-mighty user share has declined below 68 percent.
Microsoft is aware of its stubborn user base that hates to change once it gets everything working. The company even launched a cheeky website a few years ago to get people to STOP using Internet Explorer 6, the old, unsecure version that persists in popularity, thanks to its ties to Windows XP. (The Escape From Windows XP game with the giant evil Clippy is an especially fun part of the aforementioned site. But we digress.)
Things in Browser Land are changing. As revealed in a Windows 10 demo last January, Microsoft has a new surfboard on the horizon. It’s called Project Spartan (for now) and it may be the browser that gets a lot of Windows users to quit Internet Explorer for good.
The new browser will have a new rendering engine and compatibility with modern programming. Don’t worry though: It’ll load up the IE11 engine when it comes across a page written for the older browser. (Windows 10 users dependent on legacy code will still be able to use Internet Explorer as well, so fear not government workers with your weird proprietary sites.)
Could Project Spartan be the beginning of the next Browser Age? It’s too early to tell, especially since the official code hasn’t been released yet, but Microsoft has revealed some intriguing features that bring it into line with what a lot of other browsers have been doing.
Like Safari (and extensions you can get for other browsers), Spartan will have a distraction-free view, which peels away all the junk that normally clogs up a page, like ads. You’ll be able to annotate Web pages without extra tools like Scrible so you can mark up the parts you need for projects and research. Microsoft is also adding voice integration for its Cortana assistant, aiming to give Google Voice Search and Chrome — or Siri on iOS — a run for their money. And because Microsoft is trying to link every device that runs Windows 10 together for a consistent experience, it’s trying to make Spartan (shown here) work and act the same everywhere.
Project Spartan is not the only newly built browser revving its rendering engine the starting line. A new browser called Vivaldi is already out in its second technical preview and has some geeks interested.
Vivaldi, created by the former CEO of Opera software, wants to be a browser for power users. The streamlined interface (shown below) includes stackable tabs you can but on any side of the browser window and Quick Commands that let you open a ton of settings with just one keyboard shortcut. There’s also a Notes command that lets you stash your thoughts and screenshots in a side panel. Vivaldi can also run many extensions written for Google Chrome because it’s built on the open-source Chromium software from Google.
As new as Project Spartan and Vivaldi seem, it probably won’t be long before the others change up or catch up. With new looks and well-integrated features that make life easier, however, it’s the first time in a long time where the good ol’ Web browser actually feels like a fresh piece of software — and that’s kind of exciting.