Duel of the Titans

by Cye H. Waldman, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1996 Cye Waldman. All rights reserved.

| Introduction | Browsers | New on the Bookshelf | In Brief | Tip of the Month | Resources |


If the growth of the Web is reflected at all in the number of books about it, then it is very healthy indeed. I have been tracking books on authoring for the Web for over a year and the data fits a parabolic curve very nicely. At the time of this writing (mid-September) there are over 1,100 books on Web authoring. At this rate we can expect this number to double sometime next February. Now, we all know the dangers inherent in linear (or in this case, square) extrapolation, but there is no indication that the Web is going anywhere but up—for now. All the news is very encouraging. Microsoft has a strong commitment to incorporating the Web into all of its products, including the Windows operating system. I foresee that eventually publishing on the Web will be as easy as selecting File/Save As... At the same time, Internet access will soon be so fast that speed issues will vanish altogether. In the San Diego area Cox Cable has announced fiber-optic Internet service for early 1997. Fiber-optic connections can exceed the rates of the fastest telephone line connections. This will really open up the way for the Web to become a viable business tool, commerce center, and household appliance.

And what will you use to access the Web from your computer or dedicated WebStation? Why, a browser, of course. Which brings us to the main theme of this article, the browser wars (as I'm sure you've heard it called) between Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.0 and Netscape Navigator 3.0, both recently released. This month's column will take a look at these two rams butting heads for dominance of the Web.

Browser Hostilities

Microsoft was apparently behind in its recognition or acceptance of the Web and always seemed to be there with too little or too late. Not any more. An aggressive corporate commitment to the Web, coupled with the manpower to realize it, has resulted in Internet Explorer 3.0 (IE), a totally revamped browser which equals (and in many instances exceeds) Netscape's venerable Navigator. Before discussing some of the technical aspects of these browsers, it's worth noting that IE has a fresh new look—say contemporary or slick, whatever you like—whereas Netscape looks like, well, Netscape. It hasn't really changed in the several Web-years I've been using it.

With these new releases we find that both browsers appear to be functionally identical—emphasis on "appear to be." Java performance on both browsers is comparable. They seem to play leapfrog in this arena and there are those who say that Microsoft is slightly faster right now. Both browsers have a built-in JIT. (That's a just-in-time compiler which translates the downloaded cross-platform interpreter code to the native language of your machine on the fly for greater speed.) Microsoft, however, allows you to turn off the JIT; Netscape doesn't. This has proven to be helpful with applets that crashed both systems.

Microsoft has leaped ahead of Netscape in some interesting and creative ways. User options allow you set various levels of security and parental screening (e.g., for censorship of sexual or violent content). Also, if large graphics are bogging you down, IE lets you bypass the graphics and load the text first, then fills in the graphics later. This works—once the host is connected, just press the down arrow key—and I like it. Netscape still loads the images and text pretty much in the order it encounters them in the source code. Another really nice thing about IE is that you can change the font size instantly just by clicking a button on the toolbar. This is great if you encounter a Web site with small text or if your eyes simply are tired (a common malaise among Web surfers).

But Microsoft has stepped ahead of Netscape in the technology area as well with its implementation of ActiveX technology. Now, I recently skimmed an entire book on ActiveX and still don't know exactly what it is. But the idea is that IE can be integrated with applications on your PC. This has many advantages and two distinct drawbacks: it won't work on other platforms and it opens up your system to viruses from outside. This latter issue is going to create a whole new cottage industry for virus writers. Actually, there are many aspects of ActiveX technology, including complete applications, scripts, and ActiveX controls which allow you to bring movies, audio, and more to your Web site. Netscape Navigator doesn't currently support ActiveX controls, but they are purported to be available through third-party vendors.

In my experience IE is quite stable but frequently renders incorrectly pages with images aligned "left." These are sometimes, but not always, corrected by reloading the page. The biggest drawback with IE is that it is available only for Windows 95 at the present time, though versions for Macintosh and UNIX are promised for later this year.

And what of Netscape? Each new version just seems to substitute one set of bugs, er...nuances, for another. It always seems like a case of "same-old, same-old." In all fairness though, they were the first to implement Java and JavaScript and now have added CoolTalk for voice and data collaboration. (Unfortunately, I have no experience with CoolTalk to report on.) I should point out that IE supports JavaScript too, and also Visual Basic Script (VBScript), which Netscape doesn't. Also, Microsoft's ActiveX tools will support full multi-user conferencing. Netscape has also introduced some new tags for multiple column layout and spacing but IE has implemented a first cut at style sheets (supposedly compatible with the HTML 3.x specifications) which go far beyond Netscape's new tags. Of course, Netscape has always been available for the "Big Three" platforms (Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX) and is promising support for OS/2 as well.

Although both products are available for download from their respective Web sites, Internet Explorer is free and Netscape Navigator is supposed to be registered for $49.

So as I write this I'm asking myself why I still prefer (or at least use) Netscape. I think there are four reasons: 1. Dumb loyalty. Netscape captured our imagination and has consistently been the leading browser—until now; 2. Inertia. I've been using Netscape for a long time and I'm used to it; 3. I'm sort of tied in to Netscape's built-in email system; 4. It's very functional as a sort of file manager for navigating your drives and examining HTML, GIF, and JPEG files. (See my very first article in WWWiz Magazine #1, August 1995, for how to do this.) Internet Explorer, on the other hand, treats a directory the same way as My Computer or Explorer would, allowing you to move or delete files. So, sometimes dragging an HTML file into IE opens it up and sometimes it moves it. It's maddening.

Bottom line. I recommend getting and using both browsers. I'm getting used to the idea of having both of them open on my desktop all day long. Internet Explorer can be downloaded from Microsoft's Web site and Navigator can be downloaded from Netscape's.

In this section we've discussed what the browsers look like and how they behave, but what is the browser war really about? These companies are not giving out software for the fun of it. It's much more avaricious than that. It has to do with the question of who will dominate the operating systems and cyber commerce of the future. I saw an interesting editorial about this on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS recently (20-Sep-96). You can read or listen to the transcript of this NewsHour segment at the PBS Web site in the Cyber Wars article.

New on the Bookshelf

book cover Creating Killer Web Sites by David Seigel (Hayden Books, $45). I have admired David Siegel's work on the Web for a long time. In fact, about a year ago I recommended seeking out his Web pages for advice on advanced design concepts (see my article in WWWiz Magazine #2, September 1995). Now he has followed through with a beautiful and well-written book. The book, subtitled "The Art of Third-Generation Web Site Design," lays the foundation by describing the (albeit brief) history of Web site design from simple HTML files with limited graphics through heavy usage of icons and graphics to third-generation sites which are driven by design rather than technology.

The first part of the book covers both the macroscopic and microscopic elements of site and page design. On the one hand, the Web author must be concerned with the big picture—the design of the site and the layout of the pages. The former is covered in a discussion of paradigms for third-generation Web sites along with examples of successful online implementations of the principles. The latter covers the concepts of precision typography for third-generation sites and how to implement them within the constraints of HTML. Here are revealed all the tricks for great Web pages: invisible tables, blank images, margins, and more.

On the other hand, the Web author is also concerned with numerous minute details as well. A chapter on preparing images goes into detail on how to develop good images that are as small as possible (in file size). This chapter covers color depth, palettes, anti- aliasing, backgrounds, GIF and JPEG formats, and reducing file size. Another chapter on rendering type tells how to use the type fonts and sizes you want effectively as images within HTML documents.

The second part of the book deals largely with the creation of complete Web sites and pages with explanations of the whys and hows. Several sites/pages are developed. The third part of the book takes a peek at future possibilities for Web sites. An alternative to HTML is Adobe's PDF (Portable Document Format) which is derived from PostScript and offers much greater control over the layout, as well as scalability. Style sheets for HTML also promise greater page layout control (and are now partially supported by Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0).

The entire book is heavily laced with graphics showing the right and wrong ways to do things, or comparing the effects of different design parameters. It is also punctuated with sidebars full of hints, tips, tricks, and even pitfalls (the seven deadly sins) of Web page design.

The book also has a companion Killer Web Site you should visit, but I highly recommend buying the book and studying it. A year ago I described Seigel as pedantic, but he has matured into a thoughtful teacher. This book has something for all Web designers, from newbies to masters.

In Brief

Web Page Design: A Different Multimedia by Mary Morris and Randy Hinrichs. The book discusses many aspects of Web design and (to its credit) doesn't get bogged down with HTML coding. Among the subjects discussed are content, cognitive and navigational design, layout, and thinking ahead (planning for Web site growth and new technologies). There is also a chapter on adding meta-information, that is, information about the site content for robot search agents and the like. Finally, there are case studies of three sites that are considered to be well designed.

Hybrid HTML Design by Kevin Ready & Janine Warner (New Riders, $35/CD-ROM). The premise of the book is to teach you how to optimize your Web pages for Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer while making them acceptable for HTML-challenged browsers. The book has most of the Navigator 3 and Explorer 3 extensions as well as the attributes for plug-ins. (I finally learned how to accommodate browsers that don't recognize plug-ins.) In addition to a complete discussion of HTML 2 & 3 and browser-specific extensions, there is an extensive list of helper applications and plug-ins and how to get them. The thorough list of HTML tags and online resources in the Appendices makes this a book that is certain to be referred to frequently.

Café Programming FrontRunner by David Friedel, et al. (Coriolis Group, $30). This is the first book available on Café and I recommend it as a companion to Café because the program doesn't come with any printed documentation. The book covers all aspects of Café such as using the wizards for rapid application development, and also covers the debugger and Café Studio, the visual resource (menus, buttons, etc.) editor. Café Programming FrontRunner can also serve as a Java tutorial if you are new to the language. Symantec has since published Café Companion ($30), a tutorial on the Java Language and Café IDDE. Didn't they once call this "documentation" and include it with the software?

HTML 3: Electronic Publishing on the World Wide Web by Dave Raggett, Jenny Lam, and Ian Alexander. This book begins with an overview of the Web and HTML and then goes into designing and debugging a Web site. This is followed by a detailed description of the current and proposed HTML tags (through HTML 3.2) including Netscape and Microsoft extensions. There are complete chapters on style sheets and mathematics as well. The Appendices contain the usual reference material plus an interesting collection of annotated examples of tags. This book is recommended for anyone who needs to stay on the cutting edge or is just plain interested in HTML and its future.

HTML Publishing for Netscape, Windows Edition by Stuart Harris and Gayle Kidder (Netscape Press, $40/CD-ROM). This is a good book for an aspiring Web author to sit down with and go through from cover to cover. It also discusses the future of HTML and the markup tags proposed for HTML 3. Besides a solid foundation in the basics, the book goes into design and multimedia. More advanced Web authors interested in expanding their Web sites with Graphics and Multimedia should take a look at Multimedia Publishing for Netscape by Gary David Bouton (Netscape Press, $50/CD-ROM).

Java programmers may be interested in the two Java Reference Cards by Randy Chapman from SSC, $7 (that's all!). These two cards cover the applet, awt, & util and lang, io, & net class references, respectively. JavaScript CD Cookbook by Erica Sadun (Charles River; $40/CD-ROM). This "book" is actually just a (PC & Mac compatible) CD-ROM, but it is so excellently conceived and laid out that it was a pleasure to peruse. Although I wouldn't classify this as a tutorial in JavaScript, it is nevertheless an excellent collection of JavaScripts which you can use directly in your Web pages or build upon. All the scripts are amply demonstrated and explained and, of course, source code is there for the taking. Moreover, the entire "book" is viewed with the Netscape browser and is nicely laid out, making great use of advanced Netscape features to enhance the learning process. Again, I wouldn't use this to learn JavaScript, but if you know even a little, this can be a fun way to go shopping for scripts.

I'm not a database person, but I found some interesting reading in Database Publishing on the Web & Intranets by Curt Lang and Jeff Chow (Coriolis; $40/CD-ROM). The authors discuss various options for publishing databases on the Web and how they can interact with CGI, Java, LiveWire, etc.

This book is for the artistically inclined. Start with a Scan by Janet Ashford and John Odam (Peachpit Press; $35) is more than a book about scanning images. It's really a visual, step-by-step manual for transforming scanned images into something more interesting and artistic using the popular image processing programs such as Photoshop. The book itself is a visual feast and color images abound on practically every page. This book is aimed at professional (and student) designers and illustrators, but I would recommend it to anyone who is doing their own Web graphics and uses a scanner.

As an aside, I came across The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet by Evan Morris (Random House/Fawcett; $13) in a bookstore recently. If you like books as much as I do, you might want to check out this interesting literary resource.

JavaScript Sourcebook by Gordon McComb (John Wiley & Sons; $45/CD-ROM). Besides a thorough tutorial on JavaScript, this book contains a number of chapters on advanced topics such as using JavaScript with frames, forms, CGI, and new innovative uses of HTML. A large "How Do I?" chapter answers dozens of the most common questions JavaScript programmers have and points you to the right pages in the book or gives some snippets of code to answer the questions. Another chapter contains almost fifty "plug and play" routines to assist you in building your own scripts. Finally, there is a chapter on JavaScript additions in Netscape Navigator 3.0. The author has a Web site for the book which is kept current. KickAss Java Programming by Tonny Espeset (Coriolis Group; $40/CD-ROM). This is an advanced book for Java programmers who want to learn how to push the envelope of Java programming—particularly in the area of graphics (animation, image processing, 3D, virtual reality, and light sources). The CD-ROM includes a library of special effects so you can bring the author's techniques into your own Web pages. This book has some of the most remarkable Java applets I have seen and the author's work is regularly featured at the JARS-Java Applet Rating Service Web site. To get an idea of what's in store for you in the book visit the author's Web site to see some examples of the many applets from the book and CD-ROM. More than just giving you applets to customize, however, the author teaches you the details behind the techniques.

Creating Cool Web Pages With Perl by Jerry Muelver (IDG Books; $30/CD- ROM). This is a hands-on, step-by-step tutorial on Perl leading to practical, interactive Web pages with forms, searching, and more. The CD-ROM contains Perl for Windows 3.1/95/NT.

The Java Language Tutorial: Object-Oriented Programming for the Internet by Mary Campione and Kathy Walrath (Addison-Wesley; $40/CD-ROM). This book is a thorough tutorial on the Java language, but is intended for those with some programming experience. The book is structured so that you can go straight through or choose your topics at random after the introductory section. I particularly like that the larger code examples are relegated to an appendix so as not to interrupt the flow of the text. The CD-ROM contains the tutorial and all the code samples as well as the usual complement of Java tools such as the JDK and Café Lite. This is a serious book for learning the Java language.

At the other end of the spectrum, Tricks of the Java Programming Gurus by Glenn Vanderburg et al (Sams.net; $40/CD-ROM) is a collection of advanced techniques and tips for experienced Java programmers.

Most of these books can be purchased through the WWW Online Bookstore. If you can't find a book right away you can use the search engine to help you find anything. All books are sold at 10% discount in a secure ordering environment. Shipping is $3.85 domestic and $7.00 per pound foreign for any number of books. Come in for a visit.

Tip of the Month

screen image Conscientious Web site developers must design for both different browsers and different screen sizes. I came up with a small tip for the latter. You can embed some faint markers on your wallpaper to mark the size of smaller screens. The figure shows a wallpaper I created for a 1024x786 screen to show the size of 640x480 and 800x600 screens. Of course, the lines are greatly exaggerated in this figure so you can see them easily in this reproduction, but on my screen they are subtle and don't distract me when I'm working. With these marks on the screen I can quickly resize my browser to see what a particular Web page looks like on a smaller screen. Actually, you don't need the lines I've shown at all—a simple cross-hatch at the lower right- hand corner will do. When I'm heavily into the Web page development process I might keep three browsers open concurrently at three different sizes. This allows me to kill two birds with one stone.



Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 3.0
Netscape Navigator 3.0


Creating Killer Web Sites
Killer Web Site
Web Page Design: A Different Multimedia
Hybrid HTML Design
Café Programming FrontRunner
Café Companion
HTML Publishing for Netscape, Windows Edition
Multimedia Publishing for Netscape
Java Reference Cards
JavaScript CD Cookbook
Database Publishing on the Web & Intranets
Start with a Scan
The Book Lover's Guide to the Internet
JavaScript Sourcebook
KickAss Java Programming
Creating Cool Web Pages With Perl
The Java Language Tutorial: Object-Oriented Programming for the Internet
Tricks of the Java Programming Gurus

WWW Online Bookstore

Cye H. Waldman, Ph.D., is a technical and engineering consultant based in Encinitas, CA, and a chronic Weboholic. He can be reached at cye@cts.com.