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Browser Browsing and Internet Explorer’s market share

March 30, 2010

Reading yesterday’s TechTalk article by my colleagues brought back memories which I realise must constitute ancient history for some of them. Such ancient history that I have even had to check some facts against my own memory – happily confirming that dementia has not yet set in. I feel the muse of Alistair Cooke upon me…

It was the back end of 1997 and I was project managing the launch of BBC Broadcast Online (essentially http://www.bbc.co.uk) which was to join the established BBC News website and BBC Worldwide’s commercial http://www.beeb.com

Netscape Navigator, part of the Netscape Communicator package, was a force in the land (actually in many lands) and the upstart Internet Explorer had only been around for a couple of years, having really arrived alongside Windows 95… …remember that?

One of the things we found ourselves taking account of, as the Broadcast Online launch date crystallised, was the impending release of IE4 and, with it, the ‘Active Desktop’. The browser wars were well underway and Microsoft’s latest weapon, part of the continuing pattern of integrating the browser with the Windows OS, was this incorporation of HTML content into both the wallpaper and a configurable side bar of ‘Channels’ one of which was to be from the BBC.

What you have to remember is how static most web content was back then, and how much industrial effort it took to update that content on a conventional website – plus the fact that as a user you had to go back and check, again and again, to see if something had changed. In 1997 the idea of an always-on Active Desktop whereby your computer itself periodically checked for updates, was pretty hot stuff.  Its logic anticipated the subsequent popular interest in RSS feed readers and in gadgets. Indeed, the Active desktop concept only really disappeared from Windows when Vista arrived and introduced its own gadgets.

There was some controversy too – because just about anyone who wasn’t accessing the web via a network at their workplace was probably using a dial-up connection to the internet! The other challenge was how anyone, other than the mighty BBC News engine, was going to come up with new content frequently enough to populate the Active Desktop’s  updates in the age of one-way Web1.0 professionalised publishing.

So that’s my answer to “What did you do in the Browser Wars daddy?”. The wars took their course, as did Netscape, and for a time Internet Explorer reigned pretty much supreme, managing to make even the idea of an alternative browser look like a conversation topic for extreme techno-libertarians or, perhaps the same thing for a lot of that time, Mac users.

And yet now my GfK NOP colleagues have charted another shift; this time towards long-term pluralisation perhaps.

In the future, gifted web archaeologists may look back and find artefacts – little fragments which give clues as to the wars gone by. If so, one of them may light upon the significance of the BBC News ticker which has now been scuttling across the top of the BBC News homepage for over 12 years. A very smart team of people built that……. for the Active Desktop.

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