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Searching for Substance: Web Browser Olympic Scorecard

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Nigel McFarlane boils down all the competition between browsers into a single score for each browser. Take this article to your local second-hand browser dealer to test his honesty.
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A previous version of this column appeared with a piece describing technology politics between Microsoft and the World Wide Web. The echo of that competition has now reached everyday web users in the shape of a new web browser mini-war. That war is fought mostly between Internet Explorer and open source products such as Mozilla and Firefox. Differences between browsers can be hard to spot, though, and the whole thing might well mystify you.

Browser Olympics

With the Olympics and their medal tallies not far behind us, it's worth asking: What should a web browser strive for? A web browser should strive to give the user perfect access to the World Wide Web. Not good access or great access, or this week's access—perfect access. That goal might sound achievable, but it turns out to be something of a technical Holy Grail. It turns out that issues such as big buttons and smart, labor-saving features are far easier to achieve than silent, perfect access. Perfect access is what web surfers need, though. If the TV has drifted off the station, putting it into a nice cabinet won't help. You need a clear picture.

So let's have Browser Olympics.


There are four main contestants—with deadline apologies to the other non-qualifiers. The contestants each provide a core set of web engine technologies that support the web. Let's line up our competitors:

  • Internet Explorer (IE) engine from Microsoft

  • Mozilla engine from the Mozilla project

  • Opera engine from Opera Software ASA, Norway

  • KHTML/Safari engine (henceforth KHTML) from the KDE project and Apple

All of these engines are used in several end-user browser products. For example, the Mozilla engine is used in the Firefox, Epiphany, Netscape, and Camino browsers—to name just a few.


Just as in the real Olympics, we need referees and rules so that the contest is fair. All of the four main contestants or their backers have contributed to the public standards that make up the World Wide Web. These standards make a promise to end users that the World Wide Web is a global commons—a place where everyone can participate. Web standards are therefore a fit and familiar place for our contestants to fight it out. They've all been in tourneys; they've all been jousting on the Net for some time.

Another battlefield for our contestants is security. Security is a bit like the Olympic marathon; anyone can enter—finishing in style is the problem.

For each event, we'll score the contestants between zero (0) and one (1). It's technology, after all. Since technology is pretty complex, we'll allow four possible scores, as shown in the following table.




Performs perfectly.


Perfect except for a few weird and minor problems that have yet to be chased down.


A fair way toward perfection, but with a few things yet to achieve.


Breaks the contest rules on purpose (not trying, cheating, just plain belligerent—none of that makes for a fair comparison).

Contestants are all allowed to use their shiniest, best versions in our five events:

  • Event 1: Recognize the type of any web document

  • Event 2: Recognize the content of any web document

  • Event 3: Understand the content of the web document

  • Event 4: Display the web document

  • Event 5: Keep users safe from villains on the web

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