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It used to be so simple. You had Eudora for your e-mail and your tiny Mosaic browser for trolling through text-only university archives and contemplating the bright future of the World! Wide! Web!

Then it became more complicated as Mosaic morphed into new-fangled versions of Netscape Navigator, which begat the ballooning Communicators, with mail, news and tail fins, which begat — um, make that is begetting — Mozilla. And jogging alongside has been Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, which gradually eroded Netscape’s browser share, and all the browsers-come-lately such as iCab, NeoPlanet and Opera.

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Behind all of that we’ve got a lot of new ingredients: slices of DHTML and DOM, different flavors of Javascript, a dollop of Extensible Markup Language, a sprinkling of Cascading Style Sheets.

Throw it all into the Web processor and voila! Telecommunication Goulash a la Babel. These days, savvy Web designers have to stay abreast of every browser release and assemble differently coded pages accordingly. Furthermore, browser makers are under no obligation to implement so-called standards.

Let’s consider these developments: We now have Netscape, once the pride and joy of the Web, being owned by AOL, former punching boy of the Net. Netscape is also a browser-developer that once boldly ignored Web consortium standards but is now basing its new browser on the open-source software model and trying to make it as standards-compliant as possible.

And we have the Microsoft monopoly (it’s official!), releasing terrific browser software for one of its competitors, while the U.S. Department of Justice contemplates the appropriate punishment for strong-arming other competitors.

I’m alluding to two recent twists in the farcical epic that Thomas Pynchon never wrote. One is the release of the 5.0 version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer for Macintosh. It’s a year behind the Windows version (a beta of 5.5 is already out), but the fact that IE5 is such a great browser for Mac users (right down to its iMac-like color schemes) is significant in itself. It also offers new perks unavailable to Windows users such as an auction-tracking feature and the Scrapbook, which takes quick snapshots of Web pages for later use.

The other twist is Netscape’s unveiling of the long-awaited “preview version” of Netscape 6.0, the result of a collaborative open-source project, based at Mozilla.org.

This stand-off might look familiar, but the browser battle has become a lot more complicated. The terrain is completely different. The success of both companies does not hinge on their browsers, but it is still a very large issue that reverberates throughout the Web (and now NASDAQ).

At first glance, it would appear that Microsoft has come out on top again. In the Net’s feedback forums, you’ll find a lot of praise for Microsoft’s Mac team and scorn for the designers/coders at Mozilla. Go see for yourself; there’s not much point in recounting the nitpicks here, especially since Netscape 6.0 is only a preview release. Bugs and crashes are part of the process, guys. (If you’re really bleeding edge and looking for some kicks, though, download the sucker and use the translation feature, provided by Gist-in-Time. This is techno-Dadaism at its finest.)

What’s interesting, and perhaps unfortunate, is the emotional language surrounding the online critiques of Netscape’s 6.0 PR1 and IE5. Shouts of “Microsoft sucks” and “Netscape/AOL sucks” are nothing new, but it is surprising to see how fiercely users love or hate these companies. Otaku can be relied upon to speak passionately about their allegiances, but even garden-variety users have opinions on which platforms “rule.”

Last week, a friend asked what e-mail client she should use on her Mac, and I unhesitatingly recommended Microsoft’s Outlook Express. I love it. “But that’s the Evil Empire, isn’t it?” she replied. She isn’t in the minority, I’m afraid.

I’m not the first person to point out how intimately involved we are with the companies who make our technology. We could care less if our friends use Toshiba or Sony, Colgate or Crest, Coke or Pepsi; we do, however, know who our Mac-using friends are, and who uses Windows or Linux. We’ve even pigeonholed user types into personality profiles. Whatever the cause, many of us can’t see the products for the brands.

So let’s clear the air for a second: Web designers and software developers will continue to criticize — rightly so — company policies and campaign for more universal standards. Eventually these decisions will affect how “end users” view and experience the Web, but ultimately, as a user, you have the freedom to choose whatever browser you like. Hell, try ’em all. And if you simply must have an auction tracker embedded in your dashboard, then you know where to go.

I’d say Netscape is fighting the good fight by finally incorporating Web standards and collaborating with a broader developer community. Has it produced a better, faster, easier-to-use browser? Not yet, but don’t sell your stocks.

At Mozilla.org, Mitchell Baker wrote of the pluses and minuses of working for a twin-headed beast:

“It would be simpler if Mozilla.org and Netscape were the same thing, producing the same release for the same target audience. Simpler, but not better. Netscape and Mozilla.org are ultimately different organisms, serving different target audiences. They have complementary goals, but a decidedly different focus. Vive la difference!”

Maybe Microsoft will be forced to work with this difference soon, whether the company likes it or not. In one possible court-ordered scenario, Internet Explorer’s code could be released into the developer community. It will be complicated, but let’s face it: Simplicity is history, baby.