Web Informant #99, 27 January 1998
Time to downgrade your browser to version 3


In our industry, version 4.0 is an unlucky number. I'm not sure why, but it all started back in the dark DOS days. While I can't remember the exact problems with DOS 4.0, I do remember it was a dog of an upgrade, and most users waited it out until DOS 5.0. NetWare 4.0 was bug city and released before its time. To this list I'd add the 4.0 browsers from our friends at Netscape and Microsoft. They have too few enhancements that the public really needs, are way too unstable, and are still far from being on most people's desktops.

My random checks around the net put the 4.0 population somewhere around a quarter to a third of current users, and about half are still using 3.0 versions. That seems about right, given what I've seen. It is hard to lie about this stuff, because your browser announces its identity to any web server it touches. Sure, people can change the identity string if they want to, but most don't. Many web operators collect this information for their own uses: here is a link to one site that shows you who came by in the last day. http://www.cen.uiuc.edu/bstats/latest.html

Given that the v4 browsers have been out for many months, most people are sticking with what they have got, and taking their time upgrading. Why is this the case? I have several theories:

  1. Stability. The last bunch of version 3 browsers was pretty stable software. I rarely had crashes using them, and I guess that is true for you too. The same can't be said for the v4 crowd: crashes galore. Some pages wouldn't load properly when viewed in v4. Some would load slower. And whatever you do, don't install IE v4's active desktop unless you want to get real familiar with the boot sequence of your machine.
  2. Just enough features. The last round of v3 browsers displayed frames, tables, new tags, etc. They ran most Java programs without too much trouble. They had the right mix of features that people wanted to use.
  3. Size and memory requirements. There is something about running a software program that takes more than a few minutes to download. Even if you have a fast network connection and lots of hard disk space, you don't do downloads often when the files grow much beyond 5 or 6 megabytes. For those of you with a sense of history, the first browsers from Mosaic were way less than 1 megabyte! The new v4 guys are way beyond this mark, and indeed Microsoft has developed a web-based installation routine to try to cope with this.

    As a digression, that web-based install routine is a pain in the neck. I've tried it several times with varying degrees of failure. Luckily, I have a copy of the software on CD- ROM, but I still can't seem to get IE v4 completely installed on my home machine.

  4. Combining email with browsing is a confusing market message. You would think with everyone running email these days that the ideal thing to do would be to combine an email product with the browser. As you probably know, IE v4 comes with Outlook Express (which is a pretty decent piece of software). Netscape v4 comes with an overhauled version of Messenger (which is also a big improvement over their v3 email software). But I have a feeling that most people have either already chosen their email package (or have it chosen for them by their IS departments) or get confused when they want to try to evaluate both email and web sides of the products. So this strategy has actually backfired, and kept people with their v3 software.
  5. We already have too many copies of older browsers anyway. Not a single machine at home or in my office has just one browser loaded on it. Granted, I may be somewhat unusual, but I've seen plenty of other folks who have browser overload on their desktops too. Having these older browsers is like keeping your out-of-fashion wardrobe in your attic: while the clothes no longer fit your taste or waistline, you hang on to them with some sense that maybe they will, someday. So with this glut, why add another piece of software?
  6. One word: plug-ins. While I am far from a fan of these things, if you do use them you don't ever want to go through the experience of re-installing them. That tends to take the motivation out of upgrading, especially as many plug-ins are tied to a particular browser version and break when you run them on something newer.
  7. Unfamiliar user interface. Both Netscape and Microsoft made substantial changes to their screen icons, layouts, and menus between v3 and v4. Users get comfortable with one layout and don't like to change. So they stick with the older, more familiar stuff.
  8. Word 97 gave upgrades a bad name. Many corporations are still hurting from the problems with incompatible file formats between Word 95 and 97, and so tar all upgrades with the same bad news brush.

    So we will continue on our merry v3 ways. Memo to the Terrible Two: take your time with v5.

    Site-keeping and self promotions dep't

    My latest eCommerce article appeared last week in Web Review's online magazine, suggesting several things you need to examine before buying one of the popular storefront suites. You can read about it here:

    My last Web Informant essay on Microsoft's bad behavior with respect to NDS for NT came during some quick changes to Microsoft's position. If you are a student of history, or tired of getting a 404 error when you try the various links, I have put copies of all three position papers that appeared on the MS web site here: first paper, second paper, current paper

    This raises an interesting point: how do students of history deal with the ever-changing web, especially nowadays as more and more sites turn to creating pages on the fly from databases and scripts? I first wrote about this issue a year ago in the essay on maintaining a web archive.

    But by now you are probably tired of hearing about all of this. Instead, go read some really good analysis of where NT, NetWare and Unix are going. Turn to the 2/1/98 issue of Network Computing magazine and study Jay Milne's State of the NOS article. It is the first time I have seen any in- depth discussion of how NT v5 will require upgrading your existing Domain Name System servers, for example. And for those students of history, I bring to your attention the magazine's first such feature back in October 1991. This issue listed LAN Manager v2 (which didn't support TCP/IP at the time) and AT&T StarGroup, along with Arcnet and Novell's MHS. My how things change: Unix wasn't even on their charts.

    David Strom
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