Software is very much like any other business. Sometimes it isn’t the best idea that wins in the market. All too often the winner is just the one that happens to get noticed first.
Back when browsers were evolving in the 90’s, Netscape was king and they had a head start on that whole interweb thing by several years. By 1995 when the net was getting popular, everyone else playing catch up to Netscape.
The easiest way was to just copy Netscape, change the colors, then make millions selling the resulting knock-off browser.
Netscape was making its millions giving away their browser for free, so there must have been some sort of quantum economics that made this a compelling business plan for everyone else. But a lot of companies entered the browser market and all of them wanted the whole Schrödinger’s pie!
The problem was that Netscape’s products were total crap even by the modest software engineering standards of the time. Other than being first to market they had little going for themselves.
Among Netscape’s many flaws was that it was a Single Document Interface (SDI) design. SDI just means that it can only have one “document” (or web page in this case) open at a time. If you wanted two web pages open you had to open two whole instances of the application.
I always suspected that the SDI nature was just that Netscape’s programmers lacked the skills to build a good Multiple Document Interface (MDI). But around the same time frame there was also a bizarre religious movement among programmers. The new doctrine claimed that MDI was bad and that SDI was the way to go.
Its hard to tell if the SDI trend was started by Netscape’s success with a high-profile SDI application, or if it was just that Netscape became the misguided poster-child for this really fucking dumb-ass idea…
Through the last half of the 90s, nearly all other browsers were playing copy-the-leader with Netscape and so nearly all were SDI clones of Netscape’s design. Eventually Netscape imploded due to a combination of bad products, a bad business plan, and real competition from very experienced software shops. Microsoft got the blame for it all, but in reality Netscape was pretty well doomed from the start. All Microsoft did was speed it up.
The only relevant exception to the SDI browser design was from a little company called “Opera” whose developers realized that people often wanted more than one web page open at the same time… I know… fucking crazy right!
But Opera didn’t gain much of a user-base since you had to pay actual money to get the Opera browser back then and everyone knew that paying for a browser was a violation of human rights or something.
So by the start of this decade, Opera was just sitting there being awesome while everyone else was using IE instead.
The whole MDI vs. SDI concept is still hotly debated in the developer community today, but most developers have conceded that some apps lend well to MDI while others should go SDI. And most of them also concede that a web browser is an obvious candidate for an MDI design.
Those Netscape developers managed to get their new owner, AOL/Warner, to continue to pay them. So eventually they managed to write a new browser for the open source Mozilla project. Fortunately, they had also learned how to code better and so Mozilla turned out to be quite a good browser.
But no one really cared much about Mozilla until someone decided to try out that whole MDI thing. The Firefox browser was born and with it the fascination with what we now call “tabbed browsing”.
Tabbed browsing is just an MDI design with lipstick. The use of MDI in Firefox was trivial, but it was still refreshing enough to get regular people to notice:
“Oh my god!
Look at this!
You can have more than one page open at a time!
And there is a little tab at the top!
Firefox is better than sliced bread!
Of course MDI wasn’t new, tabs weren’t new, and Firefox was about as revolutionary as shit-stained underwear…
But Firefox did at least get MDI concepts noticed by the mainstream market at least.
After Firefox, Microsoft and the rest had little choice but to start the copy-the-leader game all over again.
Now they all have tabbed MDI designs.
But what frustrates me is that tabbed browsing is not really all that great an idea compared to other possible approaches. Before Mozilla released Firefox, there was already a much better MDI design in the browser market.
That browser is called IRider. It might have spurred some real advancement in the browser UIs had it just gotten the attention it deserved.
I’ll discuss iRider more in another post…