Mac Musings

Sauce for the Goose

Dan Knight - 2009.10.07 - Tip Jar

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Microsoft, the once and future monopolist, has once again bowed to the wishes of European regulators. As before, the issue remains the default installation of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser with Windows.

Purloined Programming

As Microsoft critics will gladly point out, Microsoft has grown its monopoly on the shoulders of others. Its first program, BASIC (Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), was released in 1975 for the MITS Altair 8800 hobbyist computer. The BASIC language was first developed at Dartmouth in 1963 and released to the public domain in 1966. Microsoft began to build its empire on the work of others, and Microsoft BASIC became the first widely pirated software.

As personal computer market launched in 1997, versions of Microsoft BASIC were built into the Commodore PET, the Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Apple II+. Built into the computer's ROMs, piracy wasn't an issue. And when IBM brought its PC to market in 1981, it also had a version of that BASIC built into its ROMs.

Microsoft's next great success was licensing a disk operating system (DOS) to IBM on a non-exclusive basis. Known as PC-DOS in its IBM guise and MS-DOS to the rest of the computing world, this operating system was built on QDOS (a.k.a. 86-DOS), which itself was an 8086 port of Digital Research's CP/M operating system, which had been designed for the Zilog Z-80 and Intel 8080 and 8085 CPUs.

Microsoft BASIC was developed from Dartmouth BASIC. MS-DOS was designed to work just like CP/M. And Microsoft Windows was created in response to Apple's work on the Lisa and Macintosh computers. (Apple's work built upon a foundation developed at Xerox PARC, and in exchange for the right to adapt that technology, Apple allowed Xerox to invest $1 million in the privately held company. Despite the assertions of some, Apple did not use Xerox technology without permission.)

Browsers

The Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989. The first browsers were strictly text-based, and the first graphical browser, Mosaic, was developed by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in 1993. (For the record, this project was funded by High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991 - Al Gore's role in "creating the Internet".)

Mosaic begat Netscape Navigator in 1994, the first commercial browser, which soon became the most popular browser, thanks in no small part to its liberal licensing policy - it was available at no cost for nonprofit and educational use. Netscape became synonymous with the Web, much as Google has become synonymous with Internet search.

Never content to play second fiddle (as attested to by several attempts to unseat the iPod), Microsoft developed Internet Explorer to take on Netscape. Version 1 shipped with the "Microsoft Plus!" pack for Windows 95, and the battle was on. Netscape's dominance peaked in 1996 at nearly 80% of the browser market - and in 1999 Internet Explorer surpassed it as the world's most popular browser. By 2002, Netscape had faded to insignificance.

How had Microsoft accomplished this? In large part by leveraging its dominance in the operating system realm. Internet Explorer (IE) was available for free, was part of Microsoft's Internet Starter Kit in 1996, and when newer versions of Windows were released, IE was installed by default. Microsoft also ported IE to the Mac, where it was first available in early 1996, and in 1997 Apple agreed to make it the default browser on Macs, displacing Netscape. (Microsoft gave up on IE for Mac in 2003, when Apple made its own Safari browser the default on Macs. IE for Mac development stopped almost immediately. As I said, "never content to play second fiddle".

The Issue

Since then, Microsoft has embedded Explorer more and more deeply into its Windows operating systems - and this has been a huge factor in antitrust investigations at home and abroad. At one point, Microsoft went so far as to explain that Windows could not function without Windows, a lie that was quickly disproved. And to placate European regulators, Microsoft actually sold a special version of Windows that did not include IE on the European market - and doomed it by selling it for more than the regular version of Windows.

This did not make regulators happy, and they have been working with Microsoft to devise a system whereby anyone installing Windows will be given several browser options when they first set up their computers. It looks like there will be some sort of ballot box or "click on the icon" screen that will offer the option of installing one or more browsers. Options are likely to include Firefox, Opera, Safari, and Chrome in addition to or instead of Internet Explorer.

How About It, Apple?

Apple has had an interesting history with browsers. Netscape was the earliest one available to Mac users, and Cyberdog was Apple's first attempt at creating a browser. IE became the default Mac browser in 1997, and Safari the default in 2003. Where Apple had once included two or three browsers with new OS installs, like Microsoft it now includes just one - its own.

Fortunately for Mac users, we're a minority platform that antitrust regulators have pretty much ignored, and Apple has not gone out of its way to enmesh its browser with its operating system. Mac users can easily avoid using Safari - once they've downloaded and installed an alternative.

As a Mac user who rarely uses Safari, always has Camino and Firefox running, and dabbles in Opera a bit, I would love to see Apple actively promote the use of other browsers on Macs. This would demonstrate that Apple isn't insecure about its technology, that it believes that Safari will stand or fall on its own merits. It would also show Apple's commitment to choice, a key argument it uses in promoting OS X as a real alternative to Windows.

Whether Apple ever does that or not, it's nice to know that all but two of today's top browsers - IE and Chrome - are available to Mac users, that several browsers (Camino, OmniWeb, and iCab among them) are Mac only, and that Google is promising to bring Chrome to Macs someday.

If you haven't already tried an alternative to whatever browser installed on your computer by default, I hope you'll take the time to download one or two alternatives and try them out. You may find that something other than IE or Safari better fits your needs. I know I have, and Camino has been my default browser for years. (By the way, Camino 2.0 Beta 4 is extremely stable. I'd call it release quality based on months of using this and earlier betas as my primary browser.)

Choice is good.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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