What is a Web Browser?

A browser is a software application that allows people to visit and display information (usually from a website). These days, we tend to think of the internet primarily in terms of websites so much so that it can be hard to remember that there’s more to the internet as a whole than just websites, and browsers can also be used even if you’re not connected to the internet.

Websites are simply computers (commonly called servers) with a URL (address) that contain information that can be found and read by other computers. The way that this information is received and read is through a browser. Effectively, a browser “interprets” the data being sent by the host website and displays it on the visitor’s computer. The primary way that this information is organized is via HTML (hypertext markup language).

In the earliest days of the internet, HTML was little more than a protocol for determining how text (and images) should be displayed. HTML is called a computer language, but it’s a very simple one, being primarily concerned about how to display text. For instance, a section of text can be placed between the HTML command for bolding text. Then, when the visitor’s browser displays this text, the browser will change the formatting for that section of text to bold type.

Despite the relative simplicity of browsers, only a few different ones dominate the majority of market share. All Windows computers, for instance, come with the Microsoft Edge (previously Internet Explorer) browser pre-installed as part of the Windows OS, and all Apple computers (including smartphones and tablets) come with the Safari browser pre-installed as part of the Mac OS.

The other two most common browsers used around the world are Firefox (from the non-profit Mozilla Foundation) and Chrome, a product developed and owned by Google. But there are many other browsers out there, including Opera, UC, Vivaldi, Yandex, Maxthon, Brave, Pale Moon, Basilisk, Vivaldo, SeaMonkey, and Konqueror (which comes built-in to some distributions of the Linux operating system). There are also browsers designed for different ways to navigate the internet, such as the Tor internet browser which allows users to visit websites on the so-called Dark Web.

Browsers, being software applications, tend to go through cyclical periods of being in fashion and then falling out of fashion. For instance, three of the most popular browsers from 20 years ago were Netscape Navigator, Mosaic and Lynx, but these have largely been abandoned. Likewise, Slipknot, Agora (Argo), Cuberdog, Amaya, Voyager, Grail, iCab, Amaya, Galeon, K-Meleon, Phoenix, and Internet Explorer for Mac have been discontinued.

Despite being primarily used for visiting and interacting with websites on the internet, browsers can also be used for other functions. For instance, it is possible to use a browser as a kind of “file manager” to view files on your own computer. Instead of relying on addresses that start with “http” in the browser, you can use addresses that start with “file:///C:/” (for the Windows operating system) that will display the files and folders in that given directory. And, just like with a third-party website, you can use your mouse to click on each file or folder in order to navigate through the files on your computer. Similarly, if you use your browser to display an image file or video file on your computer, it will do so the same way as for an image served by a website on the internet.

Browsers can also be used to send and receive files via the FTP (file transfer protocol) protocol. Instead of addresses beginning with “http” in the browser bar, FTP address will begin with “ftp”. FTP is the standard way that files can be sent and received between computers across the internet. Just like with websites, most FTP sites require a username and password, making navigating them similar to what you experience when you navigate a website. But with FTP, there is no “website,” just an FTP server with a URL.

Therefore, browsers are simply software applications that can be used to interact with and display information whether that information is in website format (HTML), on your own computer, or via other internet formats like FTP. Technically speaking, browsers deal with the application layer of communication protocols and can thus interact and display information via a wide number of protocols, including HTTP and HTTPS (websites), FTP (file transfer), FILE (reading your own computer’s hard drive), and SSL (secure sockets layers – a way of protecting and identifying the owner of the website).

Over time, as the internet evolved, HTML and other internet protocols began to evolve. Instead of simply displaying static text and images, websites began interacting with visitors. Cookies are small pieces of data that websites send that are received and stored via the browser. Other websites use Adobe’s Flash programming language or Javascript to store and execute code on the visitor’s computer via the browser. In other words, the browser is now involved in a two-day interaction with modern websites instead of just passively receiving the information from the website in order to display it on your computer.

As such, browsers have concomitantly evolved in order to keep up with the changing technologies used by websites to display information and interact with visitors. Modern browsers are now very advanced pieces of software technology, able to do things like encrypt data (to prevent malefactors from intercepting and reading it), manage cookies, manage Javascript and other executable types of codes, override formatting (such as font and text size), store password and login information, automatically fill in user fields, and install and execute third-party apps.

The first web browser was invented in 1990 by Tim Berners-Lee, widely recognized as one of the original creators of the internet. The first browser was called “WorldWideWeb” originally but then became known as Nexus. The first browsers, however, could not display images or other visual elements. The first recognizably modern browser was released in 1993 and was called Mosaic, later purchased by Netscape and rebranded as the Netscape Navigator browser in 1994.

Microsoft then responded by launching the Internet Explorer browser in 1995. By 2002, over 95% of all computers interacting with websites on the internet were using Internet Explorer. Apple launched its Safari browser in 2003. Google launched their Chrome browser in 2008. And Microsoft created its Microsoft Edge browser in 2015 in order to replace Internet Explorer.

Despite the similarity between browsers, there are some differences beyond the way the browser is displayed and other cosmetic differences. For instance, all browsers contain a “back” and “forward” button to either return to the previous page that was visited or move forward to the next page. All browsers have either a refresh or reload button to reload the information from the current website, and all browsers have a stop button to interrupt the process of loading information from the website. All browsers have a “home” button which sends the user to the address designed as “home.” And all browsers have an address bar to tell the browser which online resources (primarily websites but also FTP sites, etc., or anything with a URL address) to load next.

Other typical aspects that you’ll find with just about every kind of browser include the ability to expand the browser window to maximum viewing size (fullscreen), a history function that logs all of the websites that you’ve visited previously and when, and favorites/bookmarks or lists of websites kept in hierarchical folders so that you can visit them with just one click. Browsers usually also let you sent a website’s data to a printer (if you have one), zoom in or out, and view the source code of a given website. Viewing the source code lets you see the data that’s actually contained on the website instead of displaying it in a graphical format like normal.

The term “browser” is increasingly becoming antiquated as it has become more popular to refer to browsers strictly by their name, as in “Chrome” rather than saying “the Chrome browser.” The term “browser,” much like many other terms used for aspects of the internet (like web “pages”), refers to the original philosophy of the creators of the internet who likened the internet to one giant book with separate pages (websites) all hyperlinked to one another. As such, a visitor to a website was thought of as a person visiting a library (a collection of web “pages”) and “browsing” through the available information the same way that people browse physical books in a brick-and-mortar library.

In English, the verb “to browse” means to survey or examine goods or to casually look at or read books. As such, the first dedicated software applications used for navigating the internet were called “browsers,” a clear reference to the idea of users casually reading and examining the information on offer via the internet.