Web browsers are now the foundation of our digital experience. It is the App we use the most from all the Apps we have installed on our desktop or mobile. This article will give you a good overview of what browsers really are and which you should be using.
The first browser was Netscape Navigator. It was a revolution at the time, as it allowed us to see content visually. A new content display language was born (HTML) which allowed the author to properly define their document structure (well, sort of). Then Microsoft entered the fray with its Internet Explorer and bundled it for free in its operating system, Windows, which was the most popular desktop and laptop operating system at the time, and by a long shot.
Unfortunately, Internet Explorer (starting from the painful versions of 5,6 and 7) did not properly support web standards. Not only that, but they had their own standards (e.g. ActiveX), which often were incompatible across versions (to make things even harder for developers).
It became clear that the objective of Microsoft was to dominate the browser war, not produce the most elegant and standards-compliant browser.
The net result was the death of Netscape and a slow down of the development of the internet (in terms of standards and ideas) due to the fragmentation of browsers (developing for the web meant you had to support many incompatible browsers from day one). In fact, the many security holes in Internet Explorer made the internet unsafe and pushed many away from it. Flash flourished as people needed a uniform way to render animated and interactive content.
New players on the block
Firefox grew from the ashes of Netscape Navigator (a technical name for Firefox is actually Mozilla which is the original name of Netscape Navigator) into a powerful and full-featured browser. For a while, it was Internet Explorer's biggest competitor. Then an open source project called Webkit provided the basis for Google's browser, Chrome, as well as Apple's Safari.
That's right, the browsers on your iPad / iPhone / Mac are the same as those on Android (and desktop devices if you are using Chrome). Many people don't know that -- and hardware makers are not keen to advertise that after all, they are very similar under the hood.
Microsoft realized that sticking to its own standards was not working any more as people flocked away from their browsers. They dropped Internet Explorer and their custom standards and decided to develop (again!) a new browser called MS Edge, which is (to a very large extent) standards-compliant. The last version of Internet Explorer is 11, and no further development (except bug fixes) will take place.
The most challenging issue for browsers, are videos. Here's why, as videos are bandwidth intensive, special encoders are used to compress them. These are not always open source and licensing fees may have to be paid (Firefox being open source has decided against any proprietary algorithms). So you have some real fragmentation of videos in the market place.
The only real solution today, is to have multiple video players that get triggered based on the browser. To see this, open a CNN video on your desktop, where it will likely run in Flash and on your mobile device. Flash is still commonly used on desktop for videos as it has built-in some of the proprietary codecs, and is often the fallback for Firefox.
The second most challenging issue is how text is rendered.
When you compare Webkit browsers (Chrome and Safari) to Internet Explorer, you will notice that fonts look so much crisper and alive on Webkit.
This is one of the primary reasons why many people shy away from Microsoft browsers, as it strains the eyes when you spend your whole day on your browser.
Frankly, Webkit (i.e. Chrome and Safari) provides such a pleasant and complete browsing experience, we don't see a reason to adopt any other. The Chrome ecosystem opens the door to ChromeBook devices as well as using Chrome Apps on any desktop that supports Chrome. It's an open ecosystem, so there is little lock-in effect.
Microsoft (at the time of writing) is still working on properly building its MS-Edge ecosystem to make Apps easier to develop.
Even if you have a Mac, the Chrome browser is always up to date with the latest version of Webkit, and gives you access to all the educational content in the Chrome webstore. It also gives you a seamless experience from device to another (say at school you are using ChromeBooks, but at home you are using Windows).
A bonus for Chrome Apps, is that the Chrome browser updates them automatically for you as new versions become available (our App, ZeSchool, benefits greatly from this, so that administrators don't have to upgrade so many students manually).
Note, however, that on iOS (iPad and iPhone), there is no reason to use Chrome when compared to the built-in Safari. The rules of iOS prohibit adding your own browser in your App, you have to use the one that comes with the device. So Chrome on iPad, uses Safari in the background. So why bother? This is the main reason why you can't install Chrome Apps on mobile.
Our digital classroom application ZeSchool uses the Chrome browser, except on iPad (where it uses a more advanced version of the built-in browser). So in essence, we are always using Webkit. This guarantees that content will look the same regardless of device. We recommend all apps follow the same approach and users will find comfort in stability across devices.