Overview of Browsers II
 

Overview of Browsers II

One rumor that is starting to gain legs is the possibility that Microsoft will update the features of Internet Explorer before the introduction of a new browser as part of the Longhorn OS due out in 2006-2007. We argue on the front page that the two most important features by far to "add" to Internet Explorer are fixes to the security and standards compliance of IE. Both of these problems currently add 100's of millions of man-hours to web development per month. And based on information reported on Microsoft Blogs Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft group product manager for Internet Explorer, has on his tablet PC just about every possible browser in the marketplace. One things for certain, Microsoft developers certainly do their homework on competitive products and features. So in that spirit, since I have been in the market for a browser that could act as a portlet manager I decided to take a look at what might be on Dean Hachamovitch's computer.

Digital Dashboards

Let me first describe what I am looking for - a digital dashboard. This along with Cairo and Hailstorm and Bob-easy computing are Microsoft futures that frankly have never gotten really delivered - yes there have been smatterings and promises, but not the real deal. I remember the excitement back at PDC 1997 when Bill and company described easily setup, many-Windowed views on the desktop that was the soon-to-be Digital Dashboard from Microsoft. A mix of DHTML, OLE, and Office plus Windows API; digital dashboards would make setting up workspaces for everyone from business analysts to executives trivial. They would have movable, resizable window panes that also had drill down capability on all aspects of the organization of concern to their users. Having done a good deal of work on DSS-Decision Support Systems and EIS-Executive Information Systems, the prospects of a Microsoft engineered digital dashboard seemed quite enticing.

Fast forward 7 years later and there is a Digital Dashboard API 3.0 for SQL Server 2000 while the Digital Dashboard products and technologies of Office and Outlook 2000 appear to have migrated to SharePoint Product and Technologies. And now there is Business Portal 2003 tied into SharePoint, Great Plains and Solomon software if you have them. But face it, there is nothing in the Microsoft product family that comes close to the portal services available from such vendors as BEA, IBM, Plumtree, Sybase and a host of others. But these are all server based system of differing but not inconsequential costs. My client was looking for a plain vanilla portal service that would allow her to setup on Mac and Windows PCs customizable views into the most important applications and databases that her staff had to deal with on an ongoing basis. Navigating between applications was already hard enough; moving data between applications was well nigh mission impossible - what could I do to help ? Oh and by the way she had a vision of what she wanted working in her Opera Browser.


Vision of Opera Browser-based Digital Dashboard

Browser as Digital Dashboard

The browser as delivery vehicle for a digital dashboard has some resonance. First, it is estimated by Plumtree that each of its customers are going to build 100 new Web apps within the next year. Browser apps are cross platform and even any device delivery (within screen size limitations) has some real possibilities with browsers like Mozilla and Opera. And the tabbed interface for delivery of different views is also attractive. And with iFrames and Javascript plus windowing routines like those from Ceiton one could deliver multiple movable, resizable Windows panes with just the views desired. BZZZZZT - NOT.

"Our" vanilla light dashboards had to have little or no programming required, but should be able to group window panes of different Internet apps together into a workspace package. A single click instantly brings up the group of windows tiled to fit in a customized fashion in the browser window with connections to the appropriate URLs. And anyone of the window pane's Web apps can "drill down" by calling or by simple mouse click another set of windows panes with alternative detailed views as appropriate. And a third toggle button switches from full screen view of any pane - right back to the dashboard view. So not only does the browser remember what windows are in a group - but also the size and position of each window pane in the browser. Oh and by the way any window pane in the browser would have to accommodate various new Web Services as well as standard web apps plus a whole slew of legacy desktop applications. And there would have to be a smart multiple entry, any content clipboard able to shuffle any kind of object between applications in the window panes. Smile - "I am not asking too much am I ?"

After the smile it became clear that I would need to know a lot more about those browsers on Dean Hachamovitch's tablet PC. So with not a lot of hope but with the help of Google and Yahoo's directory services I went a on a tour of the latest browsers and here, in alphabetical order, is what I found.

The Browsers

Amaya 8.2 - is the official browser of W3C which uses and supports HTML 4.01, XHTML 1.1 including XML structure tree views of XML documents, RDF- annotations of a web page by permitted commentors(Linux only), SVG - XML-based vector graphics, SMIL- animations of those vector graphics, CSS for styling web pages and adding accessibility features plus MathML for displaying of complex mathematical equations and logic. Amaya is both a viewer and page editor much like Microsoft's new InfoPath whose technologies are a curious mixture of the state of the art and roughness at the edges. But clearly Amaya is a stretch to fit our portal purposes.
Avant Browser 9.01 - comes a lot closer to our portal/dashboard requirements as it supports multiple MDI windows panes of browser sessions like Opera including vertical and horizontal tiling with tabs for each browser session. Also window panes can be manually fit into a custom, checkerboard tiling if desired. Crucially, groups of web connections (each window pane with an active connection) can be named and saved. Then a simple click on the group button restores all the connections. However, Avant does not remember the position and sizing of each connection for placing in the original window pane. Also Avant lacks any means of starting up a desktop app in a window. pane and has no advanced clipboard capabilities. But this is getting close to Opera.
There are other trade-offs. Avant is built on the IE engine so cross platform goes down the drain but it is freeware , very fast, and easy to use so adoption is aided on these factors. In fact, Avant has a number of improvements over IE including:


-automatic pop-up and many other user-choice blockers;           -built in search engine taskbar with Google as default;
-true full screen mode with only scrollbar controls on display;     -records and temporary cache cleaner;
-translate menu to and from many languages;                                -choice of 8 skins and UI themes
In sum, Avant gets us a bit closer to the dashboard browser; but so does a near clone Fast Browser Pro..
BrowserBob 2.0 - Dean Hachamovitch and the other Internet Explorer developers will have to take a look at BrowserBob, the ultimate IE skins and customizing tool. With BrowserBob users with a little programming knowledge and even more graphics savvy can produce TheirOwnBrowser.exe.Truly a version of IE 6.0 but their own controls, skin, commands, and options. Just follow the template or the detailed website instructions - and in 10 minutes you can have your own browser suitable for download and browsing the Web. Again, this is not our dashboard browser; but I could not resist pointing a spotlight on it. One question - why didn't the BrowserBob developers use the much richer Mozilla XUL/JavaScript interface to the cross platform Gecko browser engine - Oracle is.
CrystalPort 5.1.6 - finally is the first browser to come distinctly closer to our dashboard requirements than the starting case, the Opera browser. Like Opera, CrystalPort is able to show multiple windows in a checkerboard fashion - but users are not allowed to size or position them, CrystalPort manages that. However, CrystalPort is able to restore the window panes to their original content and location when the program is started or a tab group(a saved set of window panes with their URLs) is loaded. This goes beyond Opera. As well, CrystalPort is able to load into a window pane any desktop application and has default buttons for 8 applications including Notepad, Word, Excel, Windows Explorer etc. In our example we have Jasc PaintShop Pro and Windows Explorer running as apps. CrystalPort also appears to call on predefined Web Services but does not allow any user chosen Web Services unless they exist already on a Web page or desktop app. You can

also drag and drop selected text from a web page into an app like Word or Notepad. A single menu click will load in a new set of window panes but it appears there is no way to do a drill down as the tabgroups are not known to the IE JScript. Also cut and paste from Web page forms are possible both ways between desktop apps and web pages; but not the more sophisticated multi-object clipboard. Finally CrystalPort supports IE plugins that allow more sophisticated automatic form filling but not all IE plugins work in the browser. In sum, Crystal get tantalizingly close to delivering the requisite functionality for a browser-based digital dashboard with minimal need for programming in JavaScript or some other language.

CrystalPort also has a number of added features including ad and other blockers, purging of navigation history traces, a nifty search toolbar, channel support, menu options for translation to and from English and 8 default skins with the ability to load and use NeoPlanet style skins as well. In sum, CrystalPort is crammed with features to add to its best digital dashboard qualifications.

iRider 2.09 - this browser and WebView follow the same approach - use a sidebar to contain literally dozens of collected and lookahead links. Lookahead links are added to the sidebar by drag and drop or right mouse click. Lookahead links are downloaded but not immediately displayed until a surfer clicks on the thumbnail (custom sizable in iRider). iRider supports grouping of several URL into a named, saved group in Favorites called a book. It also allows loading multiple links/URLs from the favorites folder or selceted links. Also just like WebView, a right mouse click on a sidebar URL does not popup a context sensitive menu. This is not our dashboard browser; but fast performance and nifty navigation tricks in the sidebars make for very handy and attractive features.
Slimbrowser - Is in the mold of Avant and Fast Browser, it meets the dashboard requirements for multipages laid out in checkerboard fashion, and savable in groups that can be restored with one click. But it is also an IE clone and lacks the ability to restore web connections stored in a group to their exact position and size on the screen. But what sets Slimbrowser apart is its ability to run pre-defined Web Services and to incorporate a file browser and other desktop apps into the Slim-browser user interface. In fact Slimbrowser is just stocked with features like zoom and text resize, use proxy server, translate to/from English, look up in dictionary, embedded color editor, drag and drop selected text into the editor, clean away web traces, etc, etc. And all in 1.3M. Impressive!
WebViewPro 1.30 - At first glance with WebView's use of a sidebar with no tabs or window tiling and IE as driving engine WebView appeared to be nice but no cigar. However, three features caught my attention - the ability to store groups of URLs for later recall, the blazing speed of the full page hover facility(hover the mouse over a URL in the sidebar and zap its full displayed in the browser) and the ability to hang apps like NotePad and WMPlayer in the sidebar. Add to these the ability to launch programs from a file browser, drag and drop of text selections into Notepad plus drag and drop of links into the sidebar for pre-loading - wow, this is a good IE replacement.

So there appears to be no browser that meets our minimal scripting, digital dashboard requirements. CrystalPort followed by Opera and Slimbrowser and Avant are the closest. And then there are the questions of a standard API . First, with the exception of Opera all of the browsers are IE based and therefore non-cross platform. Scripting could be JScript which is a very close but not identical clone of JavaScript. However the whole Microsoft scripting arena is full of distractions such as VBScript, JScript.NET, VBA, VB.NET, VSA, etc. A developer could easily get sidetracked. Also, most of the browser developers appeared to use win.ini file format for storing their tab/group or windows pane information and the same for most of their configuration files. Not XML. This is fine for first level calls but lacks generality for covering drill down situations or creating the smart clipboard. In sum, we may want to play horseshoes on this one. Get as close to digital dashboards as we can without programming and wait for the dust to clear. See how EAI-Enterprise Application Integration and Microsoft's counterpunch, Seamless Computing, play themselves out.

Other Browser Observations

Another interesting result was that few of the browser developers chose to take advantage of the huge array of other XML technologies coming out the door despite the availability of the free and the very fast performing libxml. This and other XML libraries would give developers access to XPath, XSLT, XSD, RDF, RSS, and XForms, etc. However, we did see some examples of hardwired Web Services usage - but no attempt to allow for or provide wizards to let user call on and/or customize the growing number of publicly available Web Services. As ZiffDavis' Peter Coffee has well noted, Web Services are well beyond the debutante stage. And expediting browser based application usage is going to be a key determinant of Web Services' final successful coming out.

However, there seemed to be among all the"new" browsers a consistent set of features which might be called the Opera/Mozilla set. These are the ones that IE lacks and Mozilla/Opera have and include:
-user customized popup, Flash, and other blockers;
-multipage, tabbed windows
-saving groups of windows for later one click restore (Opera only)
-skins and themes for styling a browser
-management/purging of stored web navigation history on disk (Opera only)
-more zoom and character sizing/highlighting options
-availability of a search bar as default
-convenient one-click translation to and from English
-many options for tiling of windows sessions (Opera only)
-download manager including restart/restore (Mozilla only)
-Java and JavaScript console for monitoring and extensions(Mozilla only)
The "new" browsers did add innovations beyond the Opera/Mozilla set.The areas that some of the new browsers go beyond Mozilla/Opera include:
-one click and group select of links for convenience in getting pages loading in the background
-ability to embed desktop apps in the browser's tabbed or tiled windows
-voice readout of address bar and page contents
-drag and drop selected web page text into embedded notepad/text editor app
-menu enablement of use of anonymous and/or proxy servers
Perhaps the most interesting innovation was the use of the sidebar in iRider and WebViewPro to contain a whole list of recently visited plus background loaded pages to be visited. This MRU-Most Recently used or next need URLs sidebar made the stodgy history sidebar much more proactive and productive. Watch for variations on this theme and the very quick page previews by hovering a mouse over the MRU page descriptions as delivered by both iRider and WebView appearing in browsers everywhere.

One surprising finding, the Mozilla browser with its very good Gecko engine and XUL application framework only appeared in a few browsers that were not close to meeting our dashboard specs. Even Mozilla with no sizable nor tilable windows, is well off the dashboard mark. I really had expected to see a number of Mozilla contenders. Perhaps users will see better things as the Mozilla and Oracle alliance starts to bear fruit.

But clearly, despite being in mothballs, IE still dominates third party developer efforts by at least a 4 to 1 margin (undoubtedly with the help of BrowserBob, see above). Given IE's continuing security problems, worst case of standards compliance, minimal cross OS platform support, mixed prospects on mobile, embedded, and PDA devices - this is a remarkable allegiance. It show the persuasive power of two 90%++ market shares - one on the OS desktop and the other in the browser market. And even with the prospect of the browser becoming a part of a drastically revised operating system, developers told me they preferred to work with IE. With such loyalty and 3rd party browser innovation, does Microsoft really need to update its browser other than to fix its security and non-standards compliance obligations ? But then again Microsoft may have to do it. After all, if Martin Taylor, Microsoft General Manager for Platform Strategies, does not want to be labeled as the droll Iraqi Minister of MisInformation; he is going to have to get the troops to shore up mightily his claims of Microsoft's Superior Interoperability. Martin could do well to start at the standards compliance, cross platform capability and interoperability of a number of Windows apps not the least of which is IE. Dean meet Martin; and the question is - is the the joker in the deck?

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