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Should One Browser Fit All?
Jul 15, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

Navigator vs. Internet Explorer. Like the Energizer Bunny, the battle just keeps going. On and on and on. Providing grist for the mill of multiple Ziff Davis articles, c|net reviews, and ponderous musings from wannabe web pundits.

The features of the two browsers are in a virtual lockstep: if one company adds a new feature, the other quickly follows. Netscape adds JavaScript, Microsoft gives us VB Scripting. Microsoft figures out how to load pages faster, Netscape follows with their own speed enhancements. Netscape develops the plug-in architecture, Microsoft follows suit, promising to support Netscape plug-ins. And on and on.

Given the feature equality of the two browsers, from what I can tell the browser decision is now based people's feelings about Bill:

  • Think Bill's a megalomaniac? Use Netscape.
  • Think Bill's just out to make an honest buck? Use Internet Explorer.

But the Netscape v. Microsoft debate is pointless. We should be looking for a product that changes our perception of what browsers can be.

Autodesk, one of the top ten software companies that Microsoft doesn't compete with, produces design software. They brought computer aided design to the PC platform, no small feat. But looking to sustain their growth, they've expanded from the software business -- into the publishing business.

Autodesk found that they were in a perfect position to connect creators of building components with consumers of building components. Why? Because both of those sets of people had something in common: they both use AutoCAD. Autodesk had the resources and the technical knowhow to publish a subscription-based CDROM catalogs for the construction industry. It's called DesignBlocks.

And because of their market dominance, Autodesk was able to leverage the common design file formats used by the creators and consumers of parts and building supplies, AutoCAD's .DWG format. Each item in the catalog is published in its native AutoCAD (.DWG) format, and the catalog is "browsed" by a combination of the CD-ROM software, and AutoCAD itself. Architects, designers, builders, etc., can use the design environment they're familiar with, AutoCAD, to browse the catalog, and virtually "try out" building components.

With DesignBlocks, the application has absorbed the function of the traditional browser.

But there's also a flip side to Autodesk's publishing strategy. They realized that there are opportunities for non-AutoCAD users to view AutoCAD drawings. So, of course, they developed a Netscape plug-in called WHIP!, which enables regular web surfers to view, pan and zoom in on two dimensional AutoCAD drawings. It's a perfect application of plug-in technology -- fast, seamless and extends the capabilities of the browser in a way that Netscape couldn't do on their own.

With WHIP!, the browser has absorbed some of the functionality of the AutoCAD application.

In vertical markets, especially those that are heavily information based, software companies are struggling with how their applications can integrate with and take advantage of the Internet. Does a "generic" browser like Netscape absorb the application, and become the "client" of every client/server app from here on out? Or does the application absorb the function of the broswer, and grow the ability to view, use and integrate information? Or, a third possibility, will the plug-in architecture built by Netscape (and copied by Microsoft) give us some middle ground, where browsers are the "operating system," and the plug-ins are the "applications"?

The war between Netscape and Microsoft is amusing, but shouldn't be all consuming. There will be a place (and a healthy market) for application/user specific browsers. Companies which can appropriately use technology, whether it's a plug-in or a Java applet or a full blown C++ application running locally, to solve the information needs of their customer, will prosper. One browser can not fit all, and for some the browser may not even be the proper metaphor for taking advantage of information on the net.

Because, as Autodesk has proved, some information isn't meant to be browsed. It's meant to be used.



Other pieces about client-side software: