Dan's Web Tips:

"Brand-X" Browsers: Beyond the Big Two

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TIP: Be aware that there are browsers out there besides Netscape and Internet Explorer, and many of them meet special needs not served by the Big Two. You might want to try some of them to test the cross-browser compatibility of your pages.

The Web was envisioned from the start as an open-standards-based, platform-independent medium. Users wouldn't be locked into a proprietary format requiring a specific vendor's products, but rather could pick the server and browser software that suited the user's needs, from a multiplicity of sources. This vendor independence has been largely lost by the current market dominance of two large browser makers, Netscape and Microsoft. Since a vast majority of Web users use one of these two vendors' products, those companies feel they can introduce any nonstandard "enhancements" they wish without regard for compatibility with the standards. However, the "Big Two" haven't totally driven out all other browsing software. While it's difficult for anyone else to compete with browsers that are given away free, some others can find a niche by creating client software that serves special needs and preferences that aren't covered by the more popular browsers. This article describes several of them and links to where you can obtain them. Web authors may find it useful to obtain as many of these browsers as possible to see if their sites achieve browser-independence by functioning on them.

A resident "troll" on the HTML authoring newsgroup likes to refer to these as "cheesy Brand X browsers" when he attacks them and the "purists" who allegedly prefer them. Actually, purists, like anyone else, use whatever browser best suits their needs, often one of the Big Two, but sometimes something else. In some cases, "Brand X" browsers actually do a better job of following the HTML specs than the popular ones. But in other cases it may be the less-popular browser's rendering that's deficient. But anyway, these other browsers illustrate the wide range of browsing situations a Web author should be aware of.

Incidentally, although the troll is always saying that members of the "purist camp" always say nasty things about the Big Two browsers and never about the others, I prove that either he's wrong or I haven't made it into the "purist camp", because I have both positive and negative things to say about many browsers.

I'll get right to a list of the browsers I know of, but first a minor digression...


A Note on User Agent Identifiers and Browser Statistics

Whenever anyone gives statistics purporting to identify what percentage of users are using which browsers, this is (if it's not just somebody's wild guess) probably taken from analysis of the user agent identifiers of visitors to a Web site. This identifier is part of the HTTP protocol, and is a string that usually gives the name and version of the browser being used. Unfortunately, there is no real consistency in the format of this string, which makes analysis very difficult and statistics suspect.

Netscape has always used "Mozilla" as its name in these strings, but many other browsers "lie" and also identify themselves as "Mozilla", something that got established a few years ago because the other browser makers wanted to get through browser-identifiers on sites that disabled Netscape-specific enhancements when any other browser was being used. So they identified themselves as Mozilla/2.0 (compatible; RealBrowserName) -- even though they weren't always truly compatible with Netscape. One of the browsers doing this was MSIE, which used strings like Mozilla/2.0 (compatible; MSIE 2.0). When MSIE got enough market share to be the "browser to imitate" by many of the Brand X's, you started seeing strings like Mozilla/3.0 (compatible; MSIE 3.0; RealBrowserName), which is pretending to be MSIE pretending to be Netscape.

All of this makes it very hard to identify what browsers are really being used. To make it even harder, there are a few browsers that actually let the user change the user-agent string, and some users put in None Of Your Business, a joke name like Nutscrape, or random garbage characters. In the various internal reports I generate as an ISP and online store operator's webmaster, I use a PERL routine I developed that attempts, as best I can, to parse out the true browser being used (modified every time I run into another browser that does it differently), but it's not perfect. So don't put too much trust in anybody's browser usage statistics. (And that isn't even considering various Web caching systems that make all site hit counts suspect.)

Try My CGI Browser Detection Now!

Also note that what the "user-agent string" records is, logically enough, user agents. This is not fully synonymous with browsers. Browsers are user agents, but so are some other things, such as indexing robots. So some of the weird names like "Scooter" you might see in your logs are not "brand X" browsers, but indexers from a search engine. Be hospitable to them or you won't get indexed! (Unfortunately, the spammers also have robots that go through Web sites harvesting e-mail addresses to annoy.)

Anyway, here are the different browsers I've run into so far...


Alis Tango

Alis Tango is especially designed for users who need to use non-English languages. It has comprehensive support of multiple character sets, including support for all the latest HTML, HTTP, and Unicode standards for transmitting and designating character sets, as well as a manual pull-down menu to change the character set in current use. While the mainstream browsers are gradually improving their internationalization support, Tango was there a long time ago. You can download a free demo version that expires in 30 days; after that you have to pay for it.

Interestingly, Alis Tango is one of only two browsers I've encountered so far that support the <Q> tag from the HTML 4.0 specs, which indicates a quotation and should normally result in quotation marks being added (the advantage over just typing the " character being that a system can use proprietary "smart-quote" characters if available, as well as allowing indexers, abstracters, and other specialized user agents to take appropriate action based on the logical concept that the contents are a quotation). The other browser that supports this tag is the text-mode browser Lynx.

You can obtain Alis Tango at:
http://www.alis.com/internet_products/browser/browser.html

Amaya

Amaya was created by the W3 Consortium, the makers of the official HTML specs, as a "testbed" for advanced functionality they're working on developing standards for. It's not intended as a practical browser for end-users, and is full of bugs and flaws. For instance, when I tried it on a number of sites (including ones that validated fully under HTML 4.0) there were quite a few bizarre mis-renderings, like table cells that overlayed one on top of another and graphics that displayed in weird colors unlike those used by the designer. And it even hung my system once. So don't expect to be able to use this as your primary browser, but it can be interesting for trying out W3C's new markup ideas; for instance, the latest version supports the proposed MathML (Mathematical Markup Language) which has a set of tags for marking up equations.

You can obtain Amaya (for various platforms including Windows 95, NT, and Unix) at:
http://www.w3.org/Amaya/

Charlotte

If, by some chance, you're using a VM-CMS mainframe computer, you can browse the Web through its text-mode terminals using the Charlotte browser, a text browser that has some support for tables and frames.

You can obtain Charlotte at:
gopher://p370.bcsc.gov.bc.ca/11/vmtools

DocZilla

DocZilla (formerly MultiDocZilla) is a browser being created using the open-source Mozilla (Netscape) source code by an independent developer, and will support a much wider range of data formats than normal browsers, including full-fledged SGML and 50 different graphic formats.

Read about it at:
http://www.doczilla.com/

Emacs-W3

The Emacs text editor has been popular with some users of Unix and some other operating systems for decades (I used it on a DEC-20 mainframe back in the '80s). To be precise, Emacs (short for Editing Macros) actually began in the '70s as a set of command macros for TECO, an even older and highly cryptic editor. Because of this structure, its functionality can be further extended by adding more macros, and somebody has come up with a set of extensions that turns Emacs into a full-fledged (mostly) text-mode Web browser.

You can obtain this at:
ftp://ftp.cs.indiana.edu/pub/elisp/w3/

Blind or visually-impaired people may also want to obtain EMACSpeak, to turn it into a speaking browser.

HotJava

This browser was originally created by Sun to demonstrate what Java applets can do in Web sites, before the major browsers added Java functionality. They've continued to develop and improve it, and it now works better than the rather buggy early versions did. While there's no real reason to prefer it as a consumer browser over the "big two," Sun's main thrust is to promote a "component" version of HotJava to license to developers wishing to embed Web browser functionality into their products. If this catches on, it could result in browsers descended from HotJava being in wide use, making it important for Web developers to check the compatibility of their sites with this browser.

HotJava also has some features of special interest to developers, such as a built-in syntax checker (apparently not a rigorous validator because it doesn't seem to use the DOCTYPE declaration to determine what Data Type Declaration to validate against, but still a useful feature to find syntax errors), and a feature to display the starting and ending tags of all HTML elements in the document on-screen.

An important note is that, while HotJava obviously supports Java (this was the main purpose for which the browser was created), it does not support JavaScript, which is a totally different language. The large number of people who fail to understand the distinction between these two languages will be confused by the fact that HotJava does not work correctly in sites that depend on JavaScript. In some cases, Java-based sites use JavaScript commands to launch the Java applets, which would make these fail as well, to the consternation of users who say "I thought this browser was made to run Java!"

You can obtain HotJava at:
http://java.sun.com/products/hotjava/
and the developer component version at:
http://java.sun.com/products/hotjava/bean/

LodgeNet Internet

LodgeNet is a company that is setting up hotels with in-room Internet service via TV sets. I don't know the details of how their browser works, but it's likely to be similar to WebTV, since it shares the same inherent limitations of the TV as an Internet access device, including the lower-resolution screen and clumsy input devices. Their site says their browser "supports standard HTML," but will it support all the nonstandard HTML that some authors are using?

Read about it at:
http://www.lodgenet.com/lne/internet.html

Lynx

The text-mode browser Lynx has been around longer than either of the current popular graphical browsers. In fact, its original creators hadn't even heard of the Web when they began developing it; it was designed as a campus information system for the University of Kansas, and originally used systems of hypertext markup and document addressing of the creators' own devising. But when they found out about the World Wide Web project, still in its infancy, they saw the benefit of using consistent standards, and modified their browser to support HTTP, HTML, URLs, and other elements of the Web.

The fact that Lynx is so old and that it's entirely in text mode make most people who have heard of it at all think it's an archaic, primitive browser unworthy of any sort of attention or consideration. However, it still has its fans, and is still being actively developed and refined, with current versions even supporting frames to a fashion (by providing links to each frame), and some rudimentary support for tables (by adding spaces between columns and line breaks between rows, but not attempting to actually lay out the table; this is a subject of great debate between those who want more table support for the purpose of showing tabular data, and those who think it will only cause worse rendering of pages that use tables for graphical layout which ought to be ignored by a text browser).

Text browsers like Lynx share with audio browsers like pwWebSpeak the difficulty of coping with highly-graphical sites not designed with accessibility in mind, but they do decently well in presenting the text content of well-designed sites that use proper ALT text for whatever images they do have. Some users prefer it as a way of quickly getting past the "eye-candy" and into the actual content of sites. And it's still the only practical means of accessing the Web if you're stuck on a text-only Unix shell account, which was a common situation just a couple of years ago, and might still be the case in remote parts of the world with limited bandwidth and primitive computer hardware.

For most users, a graphical browser is the preferred choice over a text browser. But if you're a Web developer, it's a good idea to take an occasional look at your sites in Lynx, to get an idea not only of what text-mode and speech-browser users will experience, but also what search engine indexers will probably see of your site (like Lynx, they ignore graphics, applets, and other non-text content).

Versions of Lynx can be downloaded free for various Unix versions, as well as for DOS and Windows 95, at:
http://lynx.browser.org/

Mnemonic

Mnemonic is a project to build a free, extensible browser. Presently, they're only working in Unix platforms.

Their site is at:
http://www.mnemonic.org/

Mosaic

Mosaic was a pioneering browser, the one which first introduced inline images, bringing about the era of the graphical Web, and rapidly becoming the most popular browser of its era. Some of the creators of the original Mosaic went on to become the founders of Netscape, which rapidly took over Mosaic's position as the top browser. After they left, a group at the University of Illinois (where Mosaic was first created) continued to release new versions for a while, but eventually gave up because the Web world had passed them by. Version 3.0 is still available from their site, and supports some standards-compliant features, like use of LINK tags to provide a site-specific navigation bar, which the "mainstream" browsers have yet to do. Despite this, Mosaic is of mostly historical interest due to the lack of continuing development.

You can obtain Mosaic for Windows at:
http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/SDG/Software/mosaic-w/

Mozilla

The Mozilla project was launched by Netscape when they released the unfinished source code to their upcoming 5.0 browser as open source for any developer who wished to work on. Various test versions of browsers compiled from these sources can be found online. These are not official Netscape releases, but some parts of them will probably find their way into Netscape in the future; for instance, Netscape has announced that their Communicator 5.0 will include the "Gecko" layout engine being developed under the Mozilla project. Other divergent browsers have been spawned from this open-source project, such as DocZilla, being created by a different company using the Mozilla sources in conjunction with other technologies. Thus, Mozilla straddles the line between mainstream "Big Two" browsers and "Brand X".

You can read more about it and download source code and compiled versions at the official Mozilla site, http://www.mozilla.org/, and also the unofficial Mozilla fanzine, http://www.mozillazine.org/.

OmniWeb

If you've got a NEXTSTEP or Rhapsody system (renamed MacOS X Server now that Apple took them over), you can try out OmniWeb, a browser designed for this platform. (Historical note: The first Web browser ever created ran on a NEXT system; Tim Berners-Lee's team at CERN did their early development on that platform. However, this first browser was not OmniWeb!)

You can obtain OmniWeb at:
http://www.omnigroup.com/Software/OmniWeb/3/

Opera

The leading third-party graphical browser is Opera, developed in Norway. Though it costs money and is competing with browsers that are free, it has a number of avid fans due to its much smaller memory and disk space requirements and the presence of configuration options such as the ability to disable sites from spawning new browser windows. The current version (as of this writing) doesn't yet support the new HTML 4.0 constructs, but they're supposed to be working on it. You can check out Opera at:
http://www.operasoftware.com/

pwWebSpeak

The blind and visually impaired have often attempted to access the Web using a screen reader on the output of a visual browser (either graphical or text-mode). This is rather imperfect, as it loses a lot of the logical structure of the HTML document. A better option is a speech browser that renders the HTML directly in audible form. pwWebSpeak is such a browser.

The concept of pwWebSpeak is very good. The implementation is adequate, but could be improved; its HTML parser seems to be even more "Tag Soup" than the popular browsers -- rather than generating a logical structure of the document via a rigorous SGML parsing, it simply reacts to the opening and closing tags as they come up. This is acceptable for the simplistic rendering pwWebSpeak currently does (like announcing "Link!" before each link, and announcing the start and end of a table when they occur), but could be troublesome if future versions attempt more sophisticated renderings of entire blocks of content, like using a different volume or tone of voice for blockquotes than for normal text.

You can read more about pwWebSpeak and download a demo version at:
http://www.prodworks.com/

QNX Demo

Did you know you can fit all the software you need to access the Web on just one floppy? A company called QNX has done just that, countering the wave of "bloatware" with a fully-graphical browser even smaller than Opera, which, amazingly, fits entirely on a self-booting floppy disk, complete with a custom operating system. You don't even have to have Windows; just boot it on any PC-compatible computer, and dial up to your Internet account with the dialer software that's included.

You can get this "Web Floppy" free; just download a self-executing program at:
http://www.qnx.com/iat/
which you then run with a blank 1.44 MB (3.5" high density) disk in your drive to create the self-booting disk. They're giving this away as a demo of their ability to embed Web functionality in a very small space, something they're hoping to interest the manufacturers of appliances in which they can embed their browser software. Maybe you'll be able to surf the Web in the future from your cellular phone or your clock-radio. Meanwhile, this free demo disk might be of use if you've got a friend with an outdated PC that you're dying to introduce to the Web. Just bring over the disk, boot it, and you're on the net!

Web-On-Call

Web-On-Call isn't a consumer browser, but rather is server software to let a Web site owner make its site available by phone as well as by Internet. You need to have a Sun or Windows NT system permanently connected to the Internet, and the hardware to connect voice and fax modems to it. WebOnCall retrieves the Web site from the Internet and reads it out loud over the phone, with links converted to voice-menu items, and the ability to fill out online forms using the touch-tone keypad. Any text-browser-friendly Web site will work with this software, but they provide authoring guidelines for optimizing a site for telephone use, and there are some special embedded tags (generally implemented using <A NAME="command">) to tell Web-On-Call to ignore parts of a page (such as graphical menus) and to read additional text not shown by normal browsers (through TITLE attributes). Since these anchor tags are legal HTML syntax, the pages can still validate, though the logical structure is a bit goofy; it would have probably been better if they implemented audio stylesheets instead as the method of suggesting particular behavior for different sections of the document.

Read more about it and try a demo phone number obtainable from their site at:
http://www.weboncall.com/

WebPal

WebPal is a TV set-box Web browser, similar to WebTV. I don't know much about it, but some information can be found at:
http://www.gorenfon.com/webpal.html

WebTV

WebTV is one of several competing set-top boxes that let people access the Web without a computer. It's now owned by Microsoft, so I guess it's not technically "Brand X," but it's highly different from "mainstream" browsers due to the limitations of a TV set as a Web display. Now you can see how your site looks in WebTV without buying one of their units yourself; simply download the WebTV Simulator at:
http://developer.webtv.net/
This browser runs on a standard Windows system and simulates the appearance and functionality of the WebTV browser. Try it out to see what WebTV users are seeing when they go to your sites.

1X

ActiveX is a form of Microsoft-specific proprietary Web content that was Bill Gates' counterattack to Java. So far, it's only worked on Microsoft's own browsers, contributing to the fragmenting of the Web community. However, somebody else has now come out with an alternative ActiveX-compatible browser, called 1X. Like Opera and QNX, they've kept it simple and produced a product taking up relatively little memory and disk space. While I'm glad to see somebody taking steps to make ActiveX a little less proprietary, I still see no reason to use this sort of material in my own Web pages; I'd rather use forms of content with open standards that are supported by a wide range of vendors, so when I use some form of applets and scripting, I'll use Java and JavaScript in preference to Microsoftisms like ActiveX and VBScript, even if other guys do eventually come out with browsers reverse-engineered to support these things. Anyway, Java is designed with more comprehensive security than the rather risky ActiveX. But fans of ActiveX might want to check out the 1X browser, at:
http://www.scitrav.com/1X/

Others

There are yet more browsers out there, and more are popping up all the time. The release of Netscape's source code will probably eventually result in some varieties of Netscape-derived browsers, perhaps designed with users' wants in mind instead of corporate marketing plans. You can find links to some Windows 95 browsers in the TUCOWS site at:
http://tucows.texoma.net/web95.html

For a list of browsers that support the PNG graphic format, see:
http://www.cdrom.com/pub/png/pngapbr.html

And the Big Two too...

Just in case you haven't tried both of the two "mainstream" browsers, here's where to find them:


Links


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This page was first created 24 Sep 1998, and was last modified 16 Jan 1999.

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