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For years, the Web browser was a technology that seemed frozen in time. While the Web itself exploded with new types of content and virtual communities, the way users accessed that material changed hardly at all from 1997 to 2004 (not coincidentally, the years when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer had a chokehold on the browser market).

But now with a maturing base of open-source code for building Web tools, browser technology is thawing quickly – and upstart software engineers are bringing into question some long-dominant assumptions about the way browsers can and should work.

Browster, for example, offers a free add-on for Internet Explorer and the Mozilla Foundation’s open-source Firefox browser that’s a simpler alternative to using the “Back” button. The San Francisco company lets people viewing a Web page, say, a list of Google search results, see what lies beyond the hyperlinks simply by placing the mouse over those links – without having to click on them or open a new window.

Meanwhile, companies like San Francisco-based Flock are developing entirely new browsers designed from the beginning to facilitate now-common social activities, such as blogging, RSS-based news reading, and photo sharing.

The new technologies promise to help Web browsers catch up with the Web itself – which is bursting with material contributed by users themselves. “The Web today is very different from the Web of the ’90s, which was very much a one-to-many experience,” says Peter Andrews, a senior software engineer at Flock and the lead builder of Sage, an open-source extension for Firefox that speeds up the process of scanning through RSS feeds. “Now you have a growing community of producers building a many-to-many Web – and browsers should integrate the functionality to support that.”

Of course, new versions of the most popular Web browsers come along regularly. Microsoft released Internet Explorer 7 Beta 2 on April 24; Mozilla upgraded Firefox to version 1.5.0.4 on June 1. But while each release includes a few more bells and whistles – IE7 allows tabbed browsing in imitation of Firefox, for example – the basics of Web browsing haven’t really changed since the University of Illinois’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications created the first browser, Mosaic, in 1994.

Searchers move about the Web by left-clicking on hyperlinks. The browser responds to each click by opening a new page in the same window or, if the user chooses, a new tab or window. Returning to a previously viewed page – such as a list of search results – means either clicking the “back” button or switching tabs or windows.

This tried-and-true procedure works well enough, and has become so familiar that it feels preordained. But is it the best way? Is there room for change? Scott Milener thinks so. He and a friend, Wendell Brown, stumbled onto that subject while having lunch one day in 2004. “I asked Wendell, ‘Have you noticed how much we hit the back button every day?’ And he pushed me on the question. Of course the napkins started coming out, and we invented what Browster is today.”

Once a user has installed the Browster plugin, placing the mouse’s pointer over any hyperlink on a page causes a small icon to pop up. Hovering over that icon with the pointer makes a new “window” appear on top of the current page, showing the page to which the hyperlink connects.

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