A web browser is a piece of software that, at a minimum, enables you to browse websites.
My own web browser history goes as follows. When I was a kid, our home computers had the Netscape browser installed. After that, we moved on to the Mozilla Suite browser (the ancestor of SeaMonkey which still exists today, I believe. Then when Firefox came out, we switched to that, and it was the browser I used mostly consistently for a number of years. (Well, I did dabble with Opera for a while, as well as some open source browsers derivative of Firefox – like there was one that included a music player in the browser? 😆 Still, these were mostly not my daily drivers.) The main reason we used these browsers, and not the dominant Internet Explorer 6, is that they worked on Linux 😊
Around 2009, Chrome was released. I spent a few years around this time switching back and forth between it and Firefox. At the time I felt like Firefox was more fully-featured (I really liked tab groups) but Chrome had an appealing minimalistic interface, and it was also way better performance-wise. I mean, I never noticed any speed difference, but Firefox at the time didn’t isolate different tabs into their own process, so if one tab started consuming an excessive amount of resources and “hung” (this being a pretty common experience for me at the time), the whole browser would hang. In Chrome, however, a single misbehaving tab was isolated from the rest of the browser, so didn’t impede browsing in any other tab at all. Ultimately I think this was the thing that pushed me to just use Chrome full-time.
In 2017, I think it was, I made the switch back to Firefox. I think it was partly because I’d switched back to using Linux, and I preferred having a browser I could update through normal system updates, and partly because I was becoming increasingly aware of Google’s business model tracking users around the web and selling their data to advertisers, and my preference was to use a different browser that didn’t do that.
In 2022, I’ve moved away from Firefox again and tried out a couple of different Chromium-based browsers that, nonetheless, don’t “phone home” to Google and seem more privacy-conscious. The browsers I’ve tried during this period are Vivaldi and Arc Browser.
As of the present day, it looks like Chrome has achieved a position of hegemony in the web browser space similar to the worst days of Internet Explorer’s heyday. It’s not just that Chrome itself is used by the majority of people, but that many other browsers use its same Blink rendering engine, i.e. they display pages in the exact same way that Chrome does. This is not a good thing for open web standards – an increasing number of web developers build for and test in only Chrome, knowing that this means their work’ll work also in Edge, Brave, etc… and not caring that it may not work in Firefox or Safari. This was one of the major issues during the hegemony of IE6, even though Google is not quite as intransigent about refusing to adopt new standards as Microsoft was in the mid-2000s. It still is not good for the health of the open web as a whole. (Even though I’m also currently using a Chromium-based browser. I don’t think this is an end-user problem, this is a developer problem.)
Here’s a quick list of the browsers that I know about (not including defunct ones).
These use the Blink rendering engine (which itself is forked from WebKit), but some of them haven’t always.
- Chrome: The most-used browser in the world today, with 68% market share on computers and 65% across all devices (as of Oct 2021). Its base is the open-source Chromium with a bunch of proprietary components added on top.
- Microsoft Edge: This browser has been the default in Windows since Windows 10, finally replacing Internet Explorer. Microsoft has also released versions for Android, iOS, macOS and Linux. Until 2020 the browser used its own “EdgeHTML” rendering engine (which was a fork of the Trident engine used for IE), but it then adopted Google’s Blink. Edge has about 9% market share on desktop, but virtually zero on mobile, for about 4% market share overall.
- Opera: First released in 1995, Opera had a long and independent history before they gave up their own rendering engine, Presto, in 2013. Up until 2000 it was paid software; after that it became ad-supported; in 2005 they gave up their ads and subsisted on funding that Google gave them to use that as their default search engine. The browser and its branding was bought by a Chinese consortium in 2016. These days the browser distinguishes itself with in-built messaging app support (like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger…) and cryptocurrency nonsense.
- Brave: A newish browser known mostly for its promotion of cryptocurrency. It includes an ad blocker, but also has some function where users can choose to see/watch their ads and be rewarded in crypto. Users can choose to use this crypto to pay “content creators”, but Brave has been criticised for the dodginess of that system. (Now at least they refund people their crypto if the creators they wanted to pay aren’t part of Brave’s scheme.)
- Vivaldi: Vivaldi is a browser suite rather than only a browser, with an integrated email client, feed reader, and calendar. It also has built-in ad blocking and webpage translation. It has a number of “power user” features, like offering an immense amount of UI customisability, some innovative tab management features, and the ability to annotate web pages. It is a proprietary freeware browser that was first released in 2016.
- Arc Browser: A very new browser, currently in closed beta and only available on macOS. It takes a unique approach to tab management (auto-archiving a tab if you don’t pin it and haven’t checked it in some customisable amount of hours), allows you to split-screen, and lets you take notes or draw on an “easel” and then generate a URL to share your notes/easel with others. I feel a bit put off by how they’ve used artificial scarcity to try to drum up interest in their browser, and it’s pretty taxing on my CPU, but the actual experience of using it is really nice.
These mostly use the Gecko rendering engine inherited from (and improved on since) Netscape, but some use their own forks of Gecko.
- Firefox: The world’s most famous open source browser! Market share peaked at 32% in Nov 2009, and now stands at about 8% on desktops, but only 4% across all platforms. For many years was also known under the name of “Iceweasel” on Debian, due to a trademark dispute.
- SeaMonkey: As mentioned above, this is the continuation of the old Mozilla Suite browser. It includes an email and Usenet client, an HTML WYSIWYG editor and an IRC client as well as the core web browser functionality. It’s currently built on the Extended Support Release of Firefox 60 and Thunderbird 60, so it still supports the old XUL architecture for extensions.
- LibreWolf: A fork of Firefox that aims to be a more privacy-hardened version, with telemetry removed and uBlock Origin built in.
- GNU IceCat: A fork of Firefox from the GNU Project that removes all non-free code (like certain plugins) and copyrighted branding images.
- Pale Moon: A fork of Firefox that retains the UI of Firefox versions 4–28. It has also forked the rendering engine (calling their version Goanna), and diverged in general a fair bit post-fork. It continues to run as a single process, and supports some plugins and the like that are no longer supported by mainline Firefox, including NPAPI plugins like the one required to run Adobe Flash.
- Waterfox: Another fork of Firefox, this one in two versions: Waterfox G and Waterfox Classic (the latter of which still supports the old XUL architecture). In late 2019 it was acquired by a “privacy-focused” advertising company, System1, which is also majority-owner of the StartPage search engine.
In addition to these, all browsers used on iOS are actually WebKit browsers, because Apple doesn’t allow the developers of alternative browsers to use any other rendering engine.
- Safari: The default browser for macOS and iOS. Its market share on desktop is just under 10%, but its marketshare overall is 19% due to the popularity of iPhones and iPads.
- GNOME Web, formerly Epiphany: Default browser in the GNOME desktop environment on Linux, as well as in elementary OS. Started life as a Gecko-based browser before switching to WebKit in the late 2000s.
- Konqueror: Default browser in the KDE desktop environment on Linux. It also has various file management capabilities. By default its rendering engine is KHTML, from which WebKit is actually forked, but it can be compiled to use others.