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w3m: No Ordinary Text Browser

See the WWW in English

  • January 19, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Before Mosaic and Netscape dominated the Web browsing scene, there was Lynx, the original text browser.

Once Lynx was the best tool for surfing the Web, simply because the only thing on the Web in the early days of its existence was nothing but text. Who needed graphics capability, after all, to read hyperlinked academic papers and news reports?

Then the Age of Mosaic dawned, and suddenly text browsers like Lynx seemed to fade to an existence of obsolescence. But Lynx did not go anywhere, and in fact is still in use by a lot of people across the globe. Other text browsers are still around as well, not the least of which is a Japanese text browser known as w3m.

w3m, an acronym that stands for See the WWW in English, is the creation of Akinori Ito, who originally created w3m from a UNIX-based pager application known as fm. Ito originally used w3m as an e-mail reader and a general-purpose file reader. He was also using it as a Web browser, but many pages did not render properly because they were using tables to create page layout--something w3m could not handle.

After one unsuccessful attempt to create a page renderer, Ito tried again in 1998, when he was a visiting researcher at Boston University.

"I didn't intend to write a perfect table renderer because tables I used was not very complicated," Ito wrote on his old w3m home page, "However, incomplete table rendering made the display of table-layout pages horrible. I realized that it required almost-perfect table renderer to do well both in `rendering (real) table' and `fine display of table-layout page.' It was a thorn path."

Update: The new w3m homepage is now located at SourceForge.

Ito's efforts were successful, and w3m became a more functional Web browser.

I tried w3m out myself on a Linux box, and was interested to see how it laid out complicated pages. Most pages I visited seemed similar enough in layout to the graphic versions for me to follow what was going on. Navigation is handled with the keyboard only, and full instructions are found in w3m's manual or in the runtime help screen you can get by pressing H.

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