OK, class, who knows what an Internet browser is?
If you raised your hand, congratulations. You're probably one step ahead of most people who use the Internet.
I suspect most people don't know, or much care. But they really should.
Here's the answer: An Internet browser is the program that you are using when you look at Web pages. In other words, when you surf the Web, you are looking at the Web through a Web browser program. A Web viewer would be a more descriptive term, but the word "browser" is generally accepted.
So, why should we be concerned, anyway? It's because Web browsers are becoming a more and more important part of everyone's life.
People are doing more things on the Internet, and the life functions that are taking place on the Web are increasing in number all the time.
You do your banking, your shopping. You search for answers to questions. You read news. You may be reading this on the Web. Many people even work online now. There are loads of things you do on the Web now. Tomorrow there will be more.
See where I'm going with this? All these things are done using your Web browser. That makes the browser a very important part of things.
The browser you use interprets, interacts with, and displays the Web for you.
If it doesn't support something you want to do, you can't do it. If it brings a new feature to the table, you can do something new.
And, if it doesn't do it correctly, that could be a problem, too. This brings up another issue _ compliance with standards.
Something as big as the Internet can't possibly work well unless it is guided by technical standards. There are several organizations that set standards for different aspects of Internet operations. If everyone abides by the standards, things work well.
There's the catch. Not all websites adhere to all the standards, and the same goes for the browser programs.
A group called the Web Standards Project came up with a test, the Acid2 test, which will test to see if a browser is compliant with important standards. Please keep this in mind as we go on.
If you've stuck with me this far, great. I hope we're all on the same page. Now let's see what there is out there.
Most people use Internet Explorer to surf the Web, simply because it comes with Windows. But it's not the only browser, and in fact, it wasn't even the first, or the second. It came to the party later on.
In terms of the Internet, Microsoft got caught with its proverbial pants down. It had to play catch-up to Netscape, the early leader, which it did. Just how Microsoft did it resulted in a huge anti-trust suit, by the way, but that's another story.
In general, Microsoft did it by bundling its Web browser with Windows, for free, including more functions that were outside the normal standards, and coming out with a program for creating websites that used these non-standard functions.
Since Microsoft was the biggest player around, it could get away with it. As a result, the Internet is riddled with technical non-compliance. That's why you occasionally get websites with pages that don't quite work correctly. Internet Explorer doesn't pass the Acid2 test.
But there are other browsers out there that do pass the test, and even Microsoft is trying to straighten out the problem it largely created with the coming version 8 of Internet Explorer. It has a compliance mode that makes it work in a manner that is compliant (the other mode is known as quirk mode).
There are a lot of other browser programs out there. This is a good thing, for it fosters competition and development. You can try almost all for free. Just download them and try them out.
There are too many, in fact, for me to write about in a detailed fashion in a column this length, but I will mention some of the more popular, in case you want to try something different. Each has its own personality, if you will, and you may find you like one better than another. If so, go for it. The URLs where you can get them will be at the end of the column.
Another, generally known as the earliest to be concerned with compliance, is called Opera. It used to have both paid and free versions, but now it's freeware. It works with many operating systems.
Apple Computer came out with its own browser, called Safari. It passes the test, and there is a Windows version.
The latest to make a splash is by Google, the search giant, and is called Chrome. It also passes the test. This one only works with Windows.
As I said before, they all have their own look and feel and features. You may find you have a new favorite. You might find that you like certain websites with one browser better, and other sites with a different browser.
The price is right, so don't be afraid to try them out.
Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.