What will the introduction of upstart Internet browsers mean for e-learning developers?
Imagine what you would hear if you eavesdropped on a group of online learning developers. You might pick up on conversations that sound something like this: "Far be it from us to discourage healthy competition, but can't we move toward a one-browser world?"
Wouldn't it be lovely, they would muse, if we didn't have to test and retest newly created modules to ensure they fly on both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer (IE)? Wouldn't it be great if courses worked without the constant tweaking?
Well, sure. But don't count on it happening any time soon. As Netscape and Microsoft, creators of the Big Two browsers (Navigator/Communicator/Netscape 6 and IE), remain locked in a face-off reminiscent of that between devotees of the PC and Macintosh, four newcomers have quietly entered the marketplace. Opera, iCab, 1X and Rdesk are nipping at the heels of the big dogs, and e-learning developers are wondering whether they're the ones who will feel the bite.
Smaller and faster
So what can these new browsers possibly offer that Netscape and IE can?t? In short, they're smaller, faster and easier to customize. They also claim to be more standards-compliant, which should be music to developers? ears. The Big Two have been widely criticized because of what developers call a lack of compliance with W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) standards. These standards, put forth by the 400-member consortium, outline a set of rules by which developers should play so everyone can access Web pages in the same way.
Opera (www.opera.com), created by Opera Software in Oslo, Norway, has been quietly gaining a reputation for being smaller, faster and adhering to the standards. With that reputation has come a sort of cult following. Opera claims 1 million users worldwide. Pretty amazing when you consider that Opera costs $35 and Netscape products and IE are free. You'd have to be plenty soured on your free milk to pay for a brand new cow.
Opera takes up only 1.8 MB of hard drive space (without Java), but it packs a wallop. Users enjoy many of the features of Netscape's browsers and IE , email, download manager, bookmarking , along with the ability to retrieve multiple documents while browsing and to navigate with only a keyboard. It's also customizable. Don't like cookies or multimedia options? Turn them off. Don't care for the look of the toolbar? Change it. In short, there's little this browser can't do, except run on a Macintosh. And that's coming soon.
Like Opera, iCab (www.icab.de) was developed by a small European company, iCab, in Braunschweig, Germany. Designed specifically for the Mac, iCab has logged more than 200,000 downloads for the beta-test version of the browser, iCab Preview. Mac users can try it at no cost now. After its final release, the iCab Pro browser will cost $29.
What's so great about iCab, other than the fact that it's designed for the Mac? (Mac devotees marvel at the foolishness of that question.) For one thing, it allows users to effectively filter out those annoying banner ads that pop up on nearly every Web site. Depending on your tolerance for advertising, that feature alone might be worth the price. But along with it, iCab offers bookmarking, email, multiple search engines, download manager , and it uses a smaller chunk of memory (4 MB RAM) than either Netscape or IE. This browser also tells you whether the sites you're viewing are standards-compliant. If they're not, you can click on an icon to see the list of offenses.
The 1X Net Browser, developed by Science Traveller International (www.scitrav.com/1x), is a wisp of a browser designed for Windows. It's called 1X because it takes up less than one floppy disk's worth of hard disk space. Although it won't run Java, 1X has a basic toolbar with six buttons; a drag-and-drop feature that allows users to quickly view HTML, text and image files in other folders; the ability to support animated GIFs and background sounds; and the ability to save Web pages. If you need a basic browser that's speedy, 1X might be worth a trial run.
RDesk (www.rdesk.com) was developed by iDesk Technologies LLC to simplify academic research. The Windows 95/98 program includes a small, full-functioning browser that supports Java, DHTML, cascading style sheets and XML, as well as a word processor and an interface that brings various functions together seamlessly. You can customize the look of the workspace, toolbars and menus.
Will they play in
So what do these browsers have that would lure users away from the Big Two? That's what Robert Todd, an e-learning designer for DigitalThink in San Francisco, wants to know. Todd says the level of pain that would cause people to abandon Netscape or Internet Explorer just isn't there. "How often does the end user complain about a browser?" he says.
Developers, on the other hand, tell a different story. According to Todd, DigitalThink designs its courses to be browser- and platform-neutral. ("We're agnostic," he quips.) Although he tests his creations on both Windows and Mac operating systems, Todd admits to being constrained by the very existence of Netscape. "If we design something specifically for Explorer, we can take advantage of functions in the operating system or MS Office," he explains. "But if we're going to lose a percentage of users because they have a different browser, it's not worth it."
Todd has researched some of the upstart browsers. He tried Opera and liked its performance and some of its features. "But, to me, it's not significantly better [than Netscape or IE]. There's just no real reason to use it."
He is more optimistic about the future of iCab, however. "Both Netscape and IE are just bad on Macs," he says. For that reason, he believes it might get a foothold.
Uhl Albert, a human factors engineer with Learnframe in Draper, Utah, believes the standards-compliant features of Opera and iCab will actually help alleviate some of the headaches that go along with creating modules that run on multiple browsers. "Standards compliance has always plagued this industry," he says. Still, it's not as though the W3C is out there policing Web sites to make sure developers follow the rules.
Still, as someone who designs e-learning for a mass audience, Todd wouldn't shed too many tears if these other browsers just went away. "A lot of developers would love it if there was only one browser," he says, adding that it would cut down on much of the testing that currently has to happen to make sure modules run on both Netscape's browsers and IE. "It would allow people to focus only on content, even though we hate the idea of no competition," he says.
But don't expect to see a one-browser world take shape. "Netscape isn't down and out," says Todd Manookin, a software developer for Learnframe. "They're second, but it wasn't always that way. AOL is using IE as its browser right now. But if they switch to Netscape, suddenly a huge market is there."
And with the addition of four smaller browsers to the mix, Manookin says elearning developers? testing headaches won't go away. "We won't ever get away from making sure we're compatible with those browsers," he says.
-Wendy Webb is a freelance technology writer in Duluth, Minn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opera Software AS
Fast, small, full-featured browser for the PC
Opens Internet pages last viewed and resizes them to fit screen.
PC with 486 or higher processor, Windows 95/98/2000/NT, 1.86 MB RAM
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Fast, full-featured browser for the Macintosh
Filtering capabilities allow users more control over images (no ads on Web pages, for example).
Mac OS 8.5 or higher; system 7.5 with MacTCP or OpenTransport and InternetConfig 1.2; or system 7.0 or 7.1 with ThreadManager and DragManager. Apple MRJ 2.0 or higher recommended for Java support; QuickTime 3.0 or higher recommended for media playback.
Plug-ins, email, limited Java
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iDesk Technologies, LLC
Windows browser designed for academic research
Built-in text editor allows users to drag and drop text and save as a readable
PC platform, Windows 95/98 or higher
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1X Net Browser
Science Traveller International
Compact Windows browser with few frills
Allows users to print copies of Web sites in two-column format.
PC platform, Windows 95/98 or higher, 1 MB RAM
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Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0
The world's most-used browser
Comes bundled with other Microsoft tools including NetMeeting, Windows Media Player and FrontPage.
486 DX/66 MHz or higher, Windows 95 or NT, 12 MB RAM for browser, 98 MB RAM for installation. Mac System 7.6.1 or higher, QuickTime 3.0 or higher, 8 MB RAM with virtual memory, 12 MB hard disk space, Apple MRJ 2.1 or higher.
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Netscape Communications Corp.
Long-awaited new version of popular browser
Redesigned user interface
Pentium 133 MHz processor, Windows 95 or higher; Mac OS 8.5 or higher; 32 MB RAM
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