Surfing Since 1991: The Evolution of Web Browsers

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In order to surf the web, you need a web browser, and today there are several different ones to choose from. If you're looking for a lean, no-nonsense browser, Chrome is the one for you. Internet Explorer still stands as the odds on favorite when you want to make sure pages load correctly (not because of superior standards support, but because its majority market share have driven developers to code their webpages to look best on IE). Firefox has found more than a niche market by giving users near endless customization, and Apple's Safari purports to run circles around everyone else (it doesn't). And then there's the cornucopia of alternative browsers and browser shells, like Flock (Firefox-based) and Avant (IE-based).

No matter which browser you choose to surf the web with, the features you take for granted today are the result of nearly two decades of browser design. On the following pages, we'll take you through a visual tour, in chronological order, of every major PC-based (read: not Mac) web browser that ever was, starting with the very first one: WorldWideWeb. We'll tell you what made each one unique and, when applicable, what it contributed to modern browser development.

WorldWideWeb

First Released: 1991

By most accounts, WorldWideWeb is regarded as the first web browser. The groundwork that would eventually lead to WorldWideWeb began in the late 1980s, the same decade MTV was launched and the Commodore 64 was still going strong. Officially introduced in 1991, WorldWideWeb could display basic style sheets and was the only way to see the web. The navigation menu contained "back," "next," and "previous" buttons, but the browser also served as an editor. WorldWideWeb would later be renamed to Nexus "in order to save confusion between the program and the abstract information space," writes Tim Berners-Lee, the browser's developer.

Image Credit: Tim Berners-Lee (w3.org)

Erwise

First Released: 1992

Some online literature regards Mosaic as the world's first graphical point-and-click browser, but that distinction actually belongs to Erwise. Developed by four Finnish students at the Helsinki University of Technology, Erwise was designed for Unix computers running the X Windows System.

Advanced for its time, Erwise had the ability to search for words on webpages. If it didn't find the word it was looking for, it would scour the internet, up to 12 pages at a time, to try to find it. Erwise could also load multiple pages at the same time, but despite all the innovation and promise, it was never commercialized, the result of a "horrible recession" in Finland at the time.

Image Credit: xconomy.com

ViolaWWW

First Released: 1992

Before the Web entered into the mainstream, a limited audience would see the introduction of the ViolaWWW browser. One of the earliest browsers, ViolaWWW was launched in May 1992. It was written by Pei-Yuan Wei, a University of California student, and like Erwise, was built for Unix and the X Windowing System. This gave the browser a limited audience.

Image Credit: xcf.berkley.edu

Notable features include the ability to use multifont text, functioning within a single windows operation and the ability to clone a copy of a document in other windows, inclusion of a History window, "Home", "Back", and "Forward" buttons, online help buttons, and even bookmarks.

MidasWWW

First Released: 1992

Another X browser, MidasWWW was released in November of 1992. It was developed by Tony Johnson at SLAC, who named it Midas for 'Motif Interactive Data Analysis Shell.'

A popular browser among fellow physicists, Johnson had little interest in further developing MidasWWW. However, a colleague would translate it to run on VAX computers, making MidasWWW the first of only a small number of dedicated browsers for VAXes.

One of the few innovations of MidasWWW was that hyperlinks changed color after you clicked on them. It was also the first browser to make use of plug-ins.

Lynx

First Released: 1992

Although Erwise had already broken ground with a graphical interface, Lynx, also released in 1992, was a text-only browser originally developed by the University of Kansas to distribute campus information. It would later find an audience with the visually impaired because of its text-to-speech interface.

In 1993, a student named Lou Montulli added an Internet interface to the application and released it as Lynx 2.0. This became popular for character mode terminals that didn't rely on graphics, although Lynx does possess the ability to launch external applications to handle images and videos.

You can still use Lynx today - above is a screenie we grabbed while running Lynx 2.8.5rel.1 on top of Vista 64-bit ( download ).

Mosaic 1.0

First Released: 1993

Erwise may be credited as the first graphical point-and-click browser, but Mosaic earns its spot in history as the first popular graphical browser, which helped push the world wide web into the mainstream.

Image Credit: wired.com

Developed at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA), Mosaic was yet another browser for X-Windows on Unix computers. The browser spread initially through newsgroups, which one of the developers would continually monitor and offer support where necessary.

Because the HTML 2.0 specification didn't exist at the time Mosaic 1.0 was released, the browser was lacking many capabilities that would later be part of the specification.

Image Credit: smartcomputing.com

Development began on the second major version of Mosaic in January 1994, almost two years before a final version would be released in October 1995. Mosaic 2.x became the first major browser to support HTML forms, HTML 3 tables, and several HTML 3 Character style elements. It also added support for Internet Explorer's BGSound element. But compared to other browsers, Mosaic was knocked for being "inexcusably slow."

Another version of Mosaic would later be released, but only for the Mac platform.

Arena

First Released: 1993

Dave Raggett, whose involvement in the Web began by developing experimental web browsers and servers in 1992, designed the Arena browser a year later to demonstrate the ideas in the HTML+ specification. Arena was the first browser to support background images, tables, text flow around images, and inline mathematical expressions, according to Raggett, and it was very powerful (for its time) at doing so.

Image Credit: w3.org

Arena would serve as a standards testbed by the W3C for HTML 3 and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) up until the organization later switched to Amaya.

Cello

First Released: 1994

Intended to be a multi-purpose browser, Cello brought native support for the WorldWideWeb, Gopher, FTP, CSO/ph/qi, and Usenet News retrieval, as well as a bunch of other protocols. It was developed by Thomas R. Bruce of the Legal Information Institute at Cornell Law School, who recognized that most lawyers were running Microsoft Windows while the majority of browsers had been written for Unix or DOS. As such, Cello goes down in history as the first web browser for Windows.

Image Credit: agocg.ac.uk

IBM WebExplorer

First Released: 1994

In 1987, IBM introduced its OS/2 operating system for PCs. Seven years later, IBM would serve up its own web browser, WebExplorer, a no- charge download for users of OS/2 Warp 3. In April 1995, IBM would begin bundling WebExplorer in the OS/2 Bonus Pack, a collection of applications stuffed onto a CD and included with Warp.

Image Credit: pages.prodigy.net

In addition to support for HTML 3, WebExplorer also implemented mail and news integration, and users could view their browsing history through an option called WebMap. A "Links" menu would display all of the links on a viewed webpage and organize them in a pull-down menu, which was used in conjunction with IBM's VoiceType voice navigation.

Netscape Navigator

First Released: 1994

Everyone's heard of Netscape Navigator, the last standalone browser to ever claim a larger market share than Microsoft's Internet Explorer (Netscape Navigator seized a near 90 percent market share during its heyday). Netscape orginally said it would offer its browser for free for non-commercial use, but the free ride was over by version 1.1 for all but academic and non-profit organizations.

Image Credit: macx.dk

Version 1.x would offer up support for basic HTML 2 elements and some HTML 3 functionality, and as development continued, Netscape Navigator would later add table support to the mix. Version 1.2 also updated the user interface for Windows 95.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Visually, not a whole lot changed with version 2.x over 1.x, but underneath the hood was a different story. The second major release of Netscape Navigator injected more HTML 3 elements into the engine, and for the first time, the browser could handle JavaScript code.

Image Credit: webbasedprogramming.com

In 1996, Netscape served up its third Navigator browser version. Still visually similar to earlier versions, the third major release added a bunch of new plug-ins, support for background colors in tables, and other odds and ends. A Gold version, which would later be changed to Netscape Communicator, integrated email, a news reader, and a WYSIWYG editor.

Image Credit: 5star-shareware.com

The fourth major release would be Netscape's last stand-alone Navigator and the last release for 16-bit Windows. Netscape Communicator would take over from version 4.5 up to version 4.8, and after that, the browser would simply be called Netscape.

This would also be Netscape's first browser to take on a modern look, but it still trailed in appearance to the current version of Internet Explorer. Moreover, Netscape Communicator 4.x ran comparatively slow. However, Netscape announced in early 1998 that future versions would be given away for free, the first of which was Netscape Communicator 4.5 in October 1998.

Image Credit: pcworld.com

In November 1998, AOL acquired Netscape and almost immediately scrapped development of Netscape 5.0. Instead, AOL wanted to build a version from the ground up, which ultimately delayed the release of Netscape 6. When it was released in late 2000, Netscape 6, based on early Mozilla code, proved both slow and unstable, prone to frequent crashing.

Image Credit: codescene.com

Released in 2002, Netscape 7 addressed the stability and performance problems that plagued Netscape 6. By version 7.2, Netscape would include an address book, HTML editor, IRC client, AOL Instant Messenger, and an online radio player (Radio@Netscape).

Slipknot

First Released: 1994

While Mosaic popularized graphical web browsing, such a luxury was unattainable for anyone without a SLIP or other TCP/IP connection. Thus Slipknot was born, a browser designed for UNIX dial-up users or direct connect shell accounts.

Image Credit: tidbits.com

Slipknot allowed users to switch between the program's web browser and its UNIX terminal window so long as documents weren't being retrieved. It could save entire documents, along with embedded pictures, and could display up to 10 documents on the screen. it also offered anonymous FTP access, Gopher, and the ability to send outgoing mail with the "mailto" HTML tag.

Minuet

First Released: 1994

Short for Minnesota Internet users Essential Tool, Minuet, as you might have guessed, was developed at the University of Minnesota. It was a DOS-based browser with low system requirements that gave college students email, newsgroup, FTP, and of course web browsing functionality. To display pages with GIF or JPEG images, Minuet required the assistance of a videocard.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Internet Explorer

First Released: 1995

Currently the market share leader, Microsoft's Internet Explorer was far less popular when it first debuted in 1995. To create what would eventually become the most used browser on the planet, Microsoft licensed Mosaic source code from Spyglass and quickly began tweaking its own browser.

Image Credit: Microsoft

IE1 wasn't included with Windows 95 when the OS officially launched on August 24, 1995, and instead Microsoft bundled the browser as part of the Windows 95 Plus! Pack. It was just over 1MB in size and about as basic as a browser gets.

Image Credit: Microsoft

Later that same year, Microsoft would release Internet Explorer 2. According to Microsoft, this was the first cross-platform browser to support both Windows and Mac. IE2 also jumped on the JavaScript bandwagon, and while it was still a fairly basic browser, it did support Secure Socket Layer (SSL), cookies, and twelve languages including English.

Image Credit: globallink.net

Included with Windows 95OSR2, IE3 was one of the first major browsers to support CSS, at least partially. IE3 shed Microsoft's Spyglass source code roots and brought support for ActiveX controls, Java applets, and Internet Mail. It could display GIFS and JPEGs and play MIDI sound files. And finally, IE3 was the first browser to be identified by the now infamous blue 'E' logo.

Image Credit: sunsite.uakom.sk

Released in 1997, IE4 shipped as part of the Windows 98 operating system. New features included Active Desktop, Channels, Frontpage Express, Netshow, Web Publishing Wizard, Microsoft Chat 2.0, and other multimedia functionality. This was also the first version of IE to support DHTML.

Image Credit: donmouth.co.uk

Whereas IE4 shipped with Windows 98, IE5 came bundled with Win98SE (version 5.5 shipped with Windows ME). It offered bi-directional text support, improvements to its CSS support, and introduced Compatibility Mode. Starting with IE5, users could also save web pages with embedded components.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Microsoft released IE6 just before Windows XP and included the updated browser in the new OS. According the Microsoft, the major focus was on security and privacy, but the software maker also injected "fun stuff" like the Images Toolbar, Auto Image Resize, Print Preview, and Media Bar. When SP2 was released for XP, a pop-up blocker would also be added.

Image Credit: Microsoft

With Netscape no longer a threat and IE6 dominating the market share, Microsoft appeared to grow complacent with browser development. Other browsers -- most notably Mozilla's open-source Firefox -- had been gaining ground with innovative features, and in October 2006, Microsoft finally responded with IE7. This newest browser didn't initially come integrated with an OS (it would later be packaged with Vista), and at first it required compliance with Windows Geniunie Advantage. The interface was markedly different than previous versions of IE, and tabbed browsing finally made an appearance.

The most recent version of Internet Explorer is IE8. For better or worse, IE8 retains the same overall appearance of IE7, but adds a few goodies such as tab grouping, Accelerators, WebSlices, InPrivate browsing, and a SmartScreen phishing filter. It's also the most standards-compliant version of IE to date, though it doesn't pass the stringent Acid3 test.

Like just about every modern browser, heavy focus was put into tweaking JavaScript performance, and as a result, IE8 feels much faster than any previous version of IE.

Opera

First Released: 1996

Pat yourself on the back if you knew that before there was Opera, there was MultiTorg Opera. It wasn't until version 2.0 that Opera would lose its MultiTorg tag and be available to the general public as shareware.

Image Credit: cybernetnews.com

Written from scratch, Opera 2.0 was completely independent from Mosaic, IE, or Netscape. And from the beginning, Opera purported to be a highly standards compliant, light-weight browser. Opera 2.0 supported HTML 3.0, it could zoom with proportional full page scaling from 20 percent to 1000 percent, it could save, open, insert, and restore sessions, and it offered multiple image and video support.

Image Credit: w3.org

Released in 1997, Opera 3 became the first version of Opera to support JavaScript. As development on 3.x continued, the alternative browser added file uploading, an integrated file download/transfer manager, pop-up blocking, plug- in support, and CSS support.

Image Credit: XML.com

One month after Opera 3.62 was released, Opera 4.0 hit the scene in June of 2000. The updated browser brought tabbed browsing into the fray, while also adding a handful of other features, such as an integrated news and email client, SSL 2, 3, CSS1, CSS2, XML, and HTML 4.0 support, print preview functionality, and a Kiosk mode.

Image Credit: open-mag.com

With the release of version 5, Opera changed its business model from by making Opera ad-sponsored rather than a trial download. But arguably the most influential addition was the introduction of mouse gestures, which is now supported by just about every browser on the planet either natively or through extensions.

Image Credit: howtocreate.co.uk

Opera 6 included PNG alpha transparency, better pop-up blocking controls, skin choices, and the Unicode character standard. Opera users also found themselves unable to connect to MSN.com after Microsoft blocked access to anyone not using Internet Explorer. Although Opera wasn't the only third-party browser denied access, the company took particular exception to Microsoft's short-lived ban. In a press release, Opera Software said:

"Opera is internationally acclaimed and renowned for its strict compliance with all international Internet standards. Maybe Microsoft should take a look at its lack of respect for the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) international Internet standards before bad-mouthing others."

The full, no-holds barred press release can be found here .

Image Credit: monkeygumbo.com

Still scorned over the MSN.com fiasco, Opera released a special "Bork" version of Opera 7 for Windows. When visiting MSN.com using the special Bork version, the page would be transformed into the language spoken by the Swedish Chef from the Muppets ("Bork, Bork, Bork!").

Corporate politics aside, Opera 7 introduced the Presto layout engine, resulting in a faster browsing experience. Standards support also received a boost.

Image Credit: myopera.com

Built around the same rendering engine as version 7, Opera 8 added full voice capability and navigation, the ability to fit window to width, notifications of blocked pop-ups, and automated weekly update checks. In September of 2005, version 8.5 permanently removed the ad banner, making it completely free for all users from then on.

Image Credit: tothetech.com

Opera 9 was released back in 2006 and remains the current version today (Opera 9.64). Throughout its development cycle, version 9.x would upgrade its Presto 2.0 layout engine to Presto 2.1.1.

Version 9 became one of the first browsers to pass the Acid2 web standards test. Widgets were also introduced in version 9.

Grail

First Released: 1995

According to its creator -- Guido von Rossum, best known for developing the Python programming language -- one of the goals in creating Grail was to make a "hackable" browser for researchers, noting it was a pain to have to hack the Mosaic C sources. Because Python code is smaller than C code, Rossum argued it would be far easier to tweak Grail's code.

Image Credit: cnri.net

Grail offers full support for HTML 2 and partial HTML 3.2, it can save and print documents, perform searches, it supports bookmarks and history, and more.

Arachne

First Released: 1996

If your computing roots date back to DOS, you might remember surfing the web with Aracne, a graphical browser that could be used with MS-DOS, OpenDOS, and Dr. DOS. The freeware browser was small enough to fit on a single 1.44MB floppy disk, but contained a surprising amount of features for such a teensy package.

Image Credit: mashable.com

Aranchne could render frames, tables, and animations and offered support for HTML 4.0 . It also came with a simple HTML editor, FTP support, and even a basic WAV player. This in addition to supporting POP3, SMTP, and other protocols. And did we mentioned in fit on a floppy?

Amaya

First Released: 1996

More of a web editor than a web browser, the W3C created Amaya in 1996 "to showcase Web technologies in a fully-featured Web client." The goal was to develop a testbed that would adhere to more standards than any other browser available. Amaya is still being developed today, where it continues to be used as a testbed for new technologies.

Image Credit: w3c.org

Oracle PowerBrowser

First Released: 1996

Built from the ground up, Oracle's PowerBrowser client combined a built-in personal web server, support for tables and images, Internet search features, built-in basic Java and Basic scripting capabilities, and support for third-party applications called Network Loadable Objects (NLO) all into a single package. It was initially available for Windows, but would later add support for Macs and UNIX.

Image Credit: dba-oracle.com

Mozilla / Seamonkey

First Released: 1998

You know Mozilla as the developers behind the popular Firefox browser, but before there was Firefox, there was the Mozilla Application Suite. Now known as Seamonkey, the cross-platform suite was based on the source code for Netscape Communicator. It consisted of a web browser (Navigator), Mail and Newsgroup app (Communicator), a web page developer (Mozilla Composer), and an IRC client (ChatZilla).

Image Credit: theinquirer.net

Mozilla represents an important part of the company's history, as it introduced extensions, without which Firefox would not be nearly as popular as it is today.

Konqueror

First Released: 1996

Another multi-purpose client, Konqueror combines a file manager, KDE technology, open-source browser, and a universal viewing application all in one.

Image Credit: konqueror.org

As a browser, Konqueror boasts support for JavaScript, Java applets, CSS, SSL, and other standards. It can run on just about any UNIX-like OS, and can also run under Windows as part of the KDE on Windows project. The HTML rendering engine Konqueror uses -- KHTML -- is the same one employed by Apple's Safari browser.

K-Meleon

First Released: 2000 (version 0.1)

If you've ever tried K-Meleon and thought it felt a lot like Firefox, there's good reason. Both browsers are built around the Gecko rendering engine. So what's the difference? K-Meleon is much more light-weight, trading in extensive plug-ins, options, and various goodies for an ultra lean design that's lighter on resources. Some have referred to K-Meleon as Firefox without the bloat .

Image Credit: Filehippo

But it's not completely bare-bones. K-Meleon allows users to change skins and themes, and it supports tabbed browsing, mouse gestures, pop-up blocking, and macros. It's also a Windows-only browser.

Galeon

First Released: 2001

Like K-Meleon, Galeon is based on the same Gecko layout engines as Firefox, only Galeon is written for GNOME. And also like K-Melon, Galeon's goal is to provide a light-weight and efficient browser without sacrificing standards compliance.

Image Credit: softpedia.com

There was some debate over whether Galeon should be a simple browser or whether it should cater to the power user crowd with advanced options and functionality. This ultimately led to the undoing of the Galeon's original development team.

Safari

First Released: 2003

Apple first introduced the Safari web browser in 2003, but it wasn't until 2007 that a version (Safari 3) would be compatible with Window. Safari 3's UI did nothing to hide its Mac heritage, but looking beyond the aesthetics, the browser boasted the ability to resize text boxes that are embedded in web pages, fairly fast rendering, and pretty good standards compliance.

When Apple released Safari 4 earlier this year, Jobs and Co. called it the world's fastest browser. That's debatable, although our own testing did find the revamped browser to offer notable speed improvements, particularly when it comes to JavaScript performance.

Safari 4 also shed its Mac OS digs for a more Windows-like appearance, along with a simplified navigation layout similar to Google's Chrome browser, both of which are built around the WebKit platform. The addition of Cover Flow meant iTunes users would feel right at home browsing through bookmarks and site history.

Firefox

First Released: 2004

The second most used browser on the planet and a favorite here at Maximum PC, Firefox's roots trace back to the Mozilla Application Suite. The creators -- Dave Hyatt and Blake Ross -- sought to offer a capable browser without the heavy backage being lugged around by a full-blown multi-purpose suite, and so Firefox was born. Or more accurately, Phoenix was born, as the browser was initially called but was later changed to avoid stepping on any trademark toes with the same-named BIOS manufacturer.

Image Credit: piercedotzler.com

Firefox was well received from the beginning, earning accolades in the media for its feature-set. Released in 2004, Firefox 1.0 came with a customizable search bar built into the menu bar. It also came with a pop-up blocker, tabbed browsing, a built-in RSS reader, central download manager, and was considered more secure than Internet Explorer, in part because it didn't support VBScript or ActiveX. And of course it supported extensions, which would ultimately provide the foundation for Firefox's continued success.

Image Credit: worthinstalling.com

By the time Firefox 1.5 was released in 2005, Mozilla's open-source browser had managed to grab 10 percent of the Windows-based browser market share. In addition to security and bug fixes, the half-version update let users reorder browser tabs, it ran faster, it offered the option to clear private data through the user menu, and it introduced automated updating.

Image Credit: winsupersite.com

While many of the changes to Firefox 2.0 were subtle, it did offer some notable improvements over previous versions. Namely, Firefox 2.0 slapped together built-in phishing protection, inline spell checking, improved search through search term suggestions, client-side session and persistent storage, and a Session Restore feature.

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Released in June 2008, Firefox 3's biggest change was the move to the Gecko 1.9 layout engine, which had been in development for 34 months. According to Mozilla, the new layout engine supercharged the browser with more than 15,000 changes to improve performance, stability, webpage rendering, and simplified code.

On the feature front, Firefox users could now add bookmarks simply by clicking on the start button in the URL bar. Other additions included the Smart Location Bar, new graphics and font handling, better memory management, a new download manager, and more. Anticipation was so high for the release of Firefox 3 that it ended up setting a Guinness World Record for most downloads in a 24-hour period.

Mozilla originally intended to label its next browser version Firefox 3.1, but after assessing the number of changes being made under the hood, the browser maker ended up labeling it Firefox 3.5.

Firefox 3.5 upgraded the Gecko engine from 1.9.0 to 1.9.1, bringing with it better compliance with web standards, support for border images, a private browsing mode, and enhancements to the AwesomeBar. The latest version also puts a lot of focus on JavaScript performance courtesy of the new TraceMoneky JavaScript engine.

Chrome

First Released: 2008

Google surprised a lot of people when it released its Chrome browser in 2008, but even more surprising was that it wouldn't remain in beta for very long, at least for a Google product. Built around the same WebKit platform as Apple's Safari browser, Chrome took a barebones approach to its layout. It also claimed improved security and reliability over every other browser on the market thanks to its abiltiy to treat each browser tab as a separate process.

Another notable feature is Chrome's Incognito mode, a private browsing mode that can be run at the same time a regular Chrome window is open.

Image Credit: dvice.com

Not a whole lot changed visually with the release of Chrome 2, but as far as performance goes, Google claimed a whopping 30 percent increase over the already speedy browser. Performance claims aside, users could now quickly remove sites from the "most visited" section, it offered a true full-screen mode, and an autofill function that remembered what you typed into web forms.

Still similar in appearance to previous versions, and still without extensions support, Chrome 3 brought to the table a New Tab page, basic theming capabilities, support for advanced HTML5 capabilities, and more performance tweaks.

Have a favorite browser of all time or know of one we missed? Be sure to tell us all about it in the comments section below!

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