Greg Notess
Reference Librarian
Montana State University
on the net

Browser Diversity

ONLINE, July 2001
Copyright © 2001 Information Today, Inc.


There are still pages out there on the Web that will only display in certain browsers or will display diferent information depending upon the browser used.
Consider the Web browser–that essential software for surfing, searching, and browsing on the Web. The "browser wars" have long been considered over, regardless of the final outcome of the U.S. court cases against Microsoft or speculation that the European Union will succeed in breaking up the company even if the U.S. doesn't. With Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) becoming the dominant Web browser for the majority of the world, what more needs to be said about the browsers? For the information professional, there are still a number of reasons to be aware of–and use–a variety of browsers. There are still pages out there on the Web that will only display in certain browsers or will display different information depending upon the browser used. And there are still plenty of versions and flavors of browsers, some with a variety of security issues.


Certainly, the Web browser is now a crucial, if not the crucial, piece of software in the information professional's arsenal. Unlike the early days of the Web, we no longer need to upgrade the latest browser every few months. Indeed, many people are quite happy using the same browser they used last year or the year before.

After all, it is not the browser that is so important but the information to which it provides access. As the primary means of traveling to and displaying Web pages, the browser is important enough. But it also provides access to a variety of other file types as well. Audio, video, PDF, Flash, and many other file types are accessible via the browser. The plug-ins for these commonly used file types are usually included in most browsers' install packages.

Has it been awhile since your last browser update? Even if you are generally satisfied with your browser, consider how long it has been since you updated it. Look under the Help menu at the About section to check which version you have. If it is not IE 5.5 or Netscape 4.77, it could use an update. Security bugs in browsers are discovered on a regular basis, and both Microsoft and Netscape post frequent updates and fixes. Even with version 6 available from both, updates continue to be made available for some of the older browsers as well. If security is an issue, be sure to have the most updated version.


Bundled with almost every new computer, as well as with many other offers, Microsoft's Internet Explorer generally is easily available. For those still using older computers or a non-Windows operating system, it is also available online. Now the dominant Web browser, IE still comes in many shapes and sizes. The current version is 5.5, but by the time you read this, version 6 may actually be available. In mid-April, it had just been made available in a preview release, but only for Win98, WinME, and WinNT. To make sure that you have the latest version, check on the Tools menu for the so-called "Windows Update." Run this to be sure that you have the latest fixes and security patches. Even after version 6 is fully released, there will probably be plenty of 5.5 users for some time, especially if it is not available for all operating systems. And more updates and security patches are likely to continue to be made available for version 5 even after version 6 is released.

Now that IE has the bulk of the browser market share, more sites are built and optimized for IE users. While most major sites make sure that both Netscape and IE users can view their content, some less-trafficked sites intentionally design their site for only one or another. Even more common are the sites that come from harried Web site builders that only take the time to make sure it works under IE.


The once-mighty Netscape is now owned by AOL, and has certainly been stumbling trying to come out with an updated version of the Netscape browser. It decided to skip version 5 and go straight to version 6, but now that version 6 is out, it is so different from the old Netscape that it has attracted few users. It looks quite different. Many of the keyboard shortcuts have changed or disappeared. The majority of Netscape users continue with version 4. Fortunately, Netscape continues to release updates to version 4 with that latest Win95+ version at 4.77.

It does get confusing for those wanting to update their version of Netscape, since the Netscape download site pushes version 6. Fortunately, Netscape makes all of its older versions available. Lower down on the download page are links for Netscape Communicator and Netscape Navigator. Communicator includes the browser, email client, editor, and newsreader. Navigator is just the browser, and for Win95+ operating systems is at version 4.08.

The newer version 6 is based on output from the Mozilla open-source project, which is a Netscape spin-off. The Mozilla browser is another available option, although it is still in beta versions and has not yet gotten to a full version 1. Netscape 6 is based on the Mozilla effort and is supposed to be much more standards-compliant. However, Netscape 6 and Mozilla do not work with all sites and can display them in unusual ways.


Meanwhile, a much smaller contingent of users have moved away from the two primary players in the browser space and opted for the Opera browser. Until recently, Opera has been a commercial product, but, with version 5 for Windows, Opera now has a free, advertising-supported mode. This free version of Opera has ads displayed as part of the browser interface and in addition to whatever ads may come up on the Web page being displayed. An ad-free mode is also available, for a fee.

There are many other less well-known browsers available. Some, like AOL's, are custom adaptations of IE, while others, such as WebTV, have particular uses for specialized devices. While there is little reason to try to load all of these, it is important to know if some portion of your particular user base might actually use one of these. If so, you should probably get familiar with those browsers as well. Check in the Web server logs for agent type. A good log statistics package should help identify unusual browsers used by site visitors.


So which of these browsers should the information professional use? Like the emotional intensity of the operating system wars of old, there are those with such a hatred or love for IE, Netscape, Mozilla, or Opera that nothing will change their mind. But for those of us for whom retrieving the information content is the key use of these software tools, the answer has to be more flexible.

The crucial task of a browser is to display information on a Web page. Unfortunately, some pages do not display properly or fully on certain browsers. A page that does not look complete in Netscape may display just fine with Internet Explorer. Others will not show up in IE but look great with Netscape. Yet others display in neither or may require some kind of plug-in to fully deliver all the information on the page.

For example, a news article from would not load on Netscape, but it came up fine on IE. On the same day, AltaVista U.K.'s advanced search results wrapped underneath ads on IE, but displayed satisfactorily in both Netscape and Opera. Later that same day, a different computer running the same version of Netscape 4.77 loaded the page just fine. Sometimes it is a rotating ad that causes the problem or simply a soon-corrected typo in the HTML. Even though a relatively small minority of pages have these problems, it is better to have the tools available to view the information than to have no access at all.


From the information professional's perspective, it is the access to information that is essential, and we should load the tools that need to view as many pages as possible.
But the lesson from this is to have at least the latest version of IE and the latest Netscape 4. After all, if some information can only be displayed on one or the other, it is critical to have both. In addition, with many windows and multiple browser sessions open, either browser can crash. It may even require rebooting to get the browser to work again.

With several browsers available, just switch over to Netscape if IE crashes, and vice versa. What kind of problems should cause the information professional to switch and try the page on a different browser? Some errors, such as the "404 page not found," are going to occur in any browser. But when half of the page loads and the rest never wants to come up, or when text overlaps something else on the page, or when no content at all seems to load on a depepage, it is worth trying the same URL in a different browser. When the display just looks odd with some parts of a page well designed but some text unusually large or small, try the other browser.

For Web sites using a Java applet of some kind, it may require a particular Java version. The site may work fine with the IE Java, but not with Netscape. It may work great with Netscape, but not with Opera. Other pages with Flash or embedded multimedia files may fail to work with the browser for several reasons. The plug-in may not have been installed. If it has, it may be an older version that will not handle the newer file format without an upgrade. Depending on when the other browser was last updated, it may be able to display the information.

From the information professional's perspective, it is the access to information that is essential, and we should load the tools that need to view as many pages as possible. While Netscape 4.77 is my default– primarily due to my unwillingness to change and the many convenient keyboard shortcuts available–I am using IE, Opera, and Netscape 6 more often. In addition, it can be quite informative to spend a little time experiencing how other browser users see the Web space that you frequent. So do not get caught in a one-browser mind set, and encourage diversity among Web browsers.

Where to Get Web Browsers:

Internet Explorer




Greg R. Notess (; is a Reference Librarian at Montana State University.

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Copyright © 2001, Information Today, Inc. All rights reserved.