Web & social

Retro Browser War: IE6 vs. Netscape in 2011

What if you took the raw, pre-patched, 10-year-old versions of Internet Explorer 6 and Netscape 6.1 and tried to surf the modern Web? What would happen?

A decade ago, Internet Explorer 6 and Netscape fought for the hearts and minds of the Web-surfing public. But since then, IE6 has been vilified as unfit for use and abandoned by its creator, and Netscape has faded into the history books. Could you still surf the Web with these two ancient browsers?

You might think firing up IE6 or Netscape would lead to an immediate onslaught of viruses, followed by your computer growing a mutant arm to unplug itself or perhaps commit suicide by bashing in its own hard drive and processor. The reality is a bit different - but only a bit.

Just for fun (my definition of "fun" is fairly warped), I decided to spend some time using the original, pre-patched version of IE6 and a version of Netscape released at roughly the same time. It turns out IE6 is still capable of surfing much of the modern Internet, but Netscape's troubles show it probably died a justified death.

As you'll recall, Microsoft destroyed the popular Netscape by bundling early versions of Internet Explorer with Windows, leading to antitrust investigations and creating a monopoly that would not be challenged until Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome arrived to start sucking away market share.

A key inflection point in the history of Web browsers occurred one decade ago, in August 2001, when Microsoft released IE6 not long after Netscape came out with its sixth-generation browser.

Unbelievably, IE6 is still in wide use today, by more than one out of 10 people browsing the Web, according to usage tracker Net Applications. IE6's enduring nature is due to businesses using applications that run only on IE6, and people who never updated Windows XP, either out of laziness or because they are using pirated copies of the operating system.

Although Netscape paved the way for Mozilla's Firefox, the Netscape browser itself was already on its way out in 2001 and has now all but disappeared, with official support ending in March 2008.

I began my experiment by trying to track down IE6 and Netscape 6 - specifically Netscape 6.1, which was based on early code from the Mozilla project and also released in August 2001. Acquiring both browsers was a bit more difficult than I expected, although getting old versions of Netscape is easy enough. They're all available in the Netscape Archive.

But after firing up a Windows XP virtual machine on my Windows 7 desktop, I realized I was using a version of IE6 that was finalized in 2008, when Windows XP Service Pack 3 was released. Microsoft, naturally, makes it difficult to downgrade. In order to get the oldest, most awful version of IE6, I had to locate an original, 2001 copy of Windows XP that lacked any patches and service pack updates.

With those minor details out of the way, I was able to run the 2001 versions of IE6 and Netscape 6.1 on the Windows XP operating system, inside a virtual machine created with Oracle's VirtualBox. Here's what I learned.

IE6 beat Netscape for a reason

It's pretty clear that IE6 was the better browser, with a more stripped-down interface and the ability to display most modern Web sites, and even play some Flash and Java content, including YouTube videos and games. I couldn't install Flash on Netscape because of a variety of error messages and problems loading download sites.

Netscape 6.1 had an awful interface, with a huge sidebar on the left giving you links to stocks, news and bookmarks. Thankfully, this can be moved to the side to open up more precious space for Web browsing. I'm guessing Netscape worked pretty well in 2001, but there are some sites - like NetworkWorld.com - that I couldn't load on Netscape and others where the text and graphics were all chopped up.

IE6 has too much wasted space at the top, but it loads most sites and feels far more modern than Netscape. Unfortunately, Microsoft didn't improve the user interface nearly enough in IE7 and IE8, leading to the browser's swift decline and the rise of Firefox and Chrome. Microsoft took a huge step forward with Internet Explorer 9, but IE6 doesn't seem all that different from its two successors.

Viruses

I expected to be hit with an onslaught of viruses the moment I opened IE6, because of the widely known security holes in the browser that are causing problems for Microsoft and users to this very day. But I didn't run into any obvious security problems, partly, I'm sure, because I spent most of my time on sites that should be safe, like Wikipedia and ESPN.com.

Still, any site - no matter how seemingly legitimate - can host malware. By pointing out that I didn't get hit with a virus, I am not recommending that anyone actually use IE6.

Netscape, meanwhile, simply stopped working after an hour or so, giving me the error message "Netscape application file has encountered a problem and needs to close." Once that happened, I couldn't open the browser at all, even after restarting Windows XP.

Simply reinstalling Netscape didn't work either. To continue testing the browsers I completely reinstalled Windows XP, and moved up to Netscape 6.2.1, released in November 2001, giving myself a version that was released after Windows XP and theoretically might work better on the operating system.

Surfing the modern Web

Despite being 10 years old, IE6 can load most modern Web sites with few problems. It's slow, you get a lot of warnings about using an out-of-date browser, and it doesn't display content quite as crisply and cleanly as Chrome, Firefox or IE9. But you can play YouTube videos, read ESPN.com articles, and log into Facebook.

The new version of Twitter poses some problems, though, and benchmarking tests reveal IE6's shortcomings. A JavaScript benchmark test I ran gave IE6 a score of 24, compared to 759 for Chrome (though I was running Chrome on Windows 7).

The JavaScript benchmark site didn't work at all on Netscape, and two other testing sites also worked on IE6 but not Netscape. One of these was a Doom-style Canvas demo, which loaded on IE6 but played only slowly and haltingly.

Netscape could load simple, text-based sites, like Google and Wikipedia, but content sites like ESPN and the Huffington Post were all chopped up, with overlapping text and links. On Facebook, Netscape couldn't get past the login screen, and struggled mightily to display any content on Twitter.

Clearly, you shouldn't be using Netscape or IE6 to surf the Web today. But if you want to see what would happen if you did, check out the screenshots.

Follow Jon Brodkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jbrodkin

Read more about software in Network World's Software section.

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