What if you took the raw, pre-patched, 10-year-old versions of Internet Explorer 6 and Netscape 6.1 and tried to surf the modern web? What would happen?
A decade ago, Internet Explorer 6 and Netscape fought for the hearts and minds of the web-surfing public. But since then, IE6 has been vilified as unfit for use and abandoned by its creator and Netscape has faded into the history books. Could you still surf the web with these two ancient browsers?
You might think firing up IE6 or Netscape would lead to an immediate onslaught of viruses, followed by your computer growing a mutant arm to unplug itself or perhaps commit suicide by bashing in its own hard drive and processor. The reality is a bit different - but only a bit.
Just for fun (my definition of 'fun' is fairly warped), I decided to spend some time using the original, pre-patched version of IE6 and a version of Netscape released at roughly the same time. It turns out IE6 is still capable of surfing much of the modern Internet, but Netscape's troubles show it probably died a justified death.
As you'll recall, Microsoft destroyed the popular Netscape by bundling early versions of Internet Explorer with Windows, leading to antitrust investigations and creating a monopoly that would not be challenged until Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome arrived to start sucking away market share.
A key inflection point in the history of web browsers occurred one decade ago, in August 2001, when Microsoft released IE6 not long after Netscape came out with its sixth-generation browser.
Unbelievably, IE6 is still in wide use today, by more than one out of 10 people browsing the web, according to usage tracker Net Applications. IE6's enduring nature is due to businesses using applications that run only on IE6, and people who never updated Windows XP, either out of laziness or because they are using pirated copies of the operating system.
Although Netscape paved the way for Mozilla's Firefox, the Netscape browser itself was already on its way out in 2001 and has now all but disappeared, with official support ending in March 2008.
I began my experiment by trying to track down IE6 and Netscape 6 - specifically Netscape 6.1, which was based on early code from the Mozilla project and also released in August 2001. Acquiring both browsers was a bit more difficult than I expected, although getting old versions of Netscape is easy enough. They're all available in the Netscape Archive.
But after firing up a Windows XP virtual machine on my Windows 7 desktop, I realised I was using a version of IE6 that was finalised in 2008, when Windows XP Service Pack 3 was released. Microsoft, naturally, makes it difficult to downgrade. In order to get the oldest, most awful version of IE6, I had to locate an original, 2001 copy of Windows XP that lacked any patches and service pack updates.
With those minor details out of the way, I was able to run the 2001 versions of IE6 and Netscape 6.1 on the Windows XP operating system, inside a virtual machine created with Oracle's VirtualBox. Here's what I learned.
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