Are you sick and tired of Internet Explorer? Have you grown weary of
the constant vulnerabilities and patches? Do you scratch your head at
sudden program lockups and crashes? Are you dismayed that Microsoft
hasn't lifted a finger to improve or enhance IE since it buried
Netscape's Navigator browser at the dawn of the century?
Yeah, me too.
Welcome to Internet Explorer backlash. For the first time since
Microsoft launched its flagship browser in 1995, Internet Explorer is
actually losing market share. Research firm WebSideStory reported that
the enormous chunk of IE users declined from a high of 95 percent in
June to 92.9 percent in October. That number could drop further, as a
sudden wealth of good browser options attracts users of all
A lot of the credit can go to the folks at the Open-Source Foundation,
which was established in 1998 to breathe new life into the
fast-failing Netscape browser platform. It's taken six years and the
utter failure of Netscape the company, but Mozilla is finally
delivering on its promise.
Today, not one, but two significant browser alternatives are powered
by Mozilla's Gecko software code base -- America Online's Netscape 7.2
and the wildly popular new Firefox 1.0 browser. Of course, even those
two aren't the only IE challengers: A third major alternative, the
Opera browser from Opera Software, has been serving disaffected IE
users for years.
With so many choices just a software download away, questions
swirl. Why should you care? Which browser is best? And after all is
said and done, should you really switch? Software junkies may tell you
the answers are obvious and conclusions foregone, but wait; read
on. *It's the Tabs, Stupid*.
There are a lot of reasons why users are fleeing Microsoft Internet
Explorer, but a lot of it boils down to security. Microsoft has chosen
to run IE like a highly automated factory. ActiveX controls, dynamic
HTML, and other technologies deliver lots of automation and
programmatic control over IE. That's great if you want to integrate,
say, a billing system with your browser, or have Web sites offer
dynamic interfaces. But those same controls can be misused or
targeted, amplifying the threat from malicious code.</p>
Microsoft's response has been a grim parade of patches, fixes, and
advisories. In some instances, Microsoft has suggested turning off
features or setting security levels so high that they disable the very
capabilities that make IE attractive in the first place. Finally in
October, Microsoft released Windows XP Service Pack 2, a wholesale
update that helped close many of the vulnerabilities in Internet
But understand this: No browser is without flaws. Mozilla patched some
holes of its own prior to the Firefox 1.0 release, and Opera has
issued a few security-centric updates in the past year. The problem
for Microsoft is the overwhelming popularity of its browser. Virus
writers and hackers target IE because there are so many systems
Perhaps more frustrating than security leaks is the fact that
Microsoft quit adding new features to its browser. The last major
feature refresh for IE dates back to August 2001 -- and it
shows. Firefox, Netscape, and Opera all offer significant feature
improvements over IE, including tabbed browsing for juggling multiple
Web pages, and built-in pop-up blocking to prevent ads from opening
new browser windows. Other refinements include helpful managers for
file downloads, integrated search bars, and more accessible controls
for managing histories, cookie files, and the browser cache.
In fact, the future of Web browsing comes down to one word: tabs. I
realized it the instant I fired up multiple pages in a single Opera
program window. Just like that, I could browse a half-dozen Web pages
with ease, jumping from one to the next simply by clicking on the
little tabs at the top of the window. What's more, I could open
multiple tabbed pages in the background, so they could load while I
looked at the page in the foreground.
Not all tabbing systems are created equal, and no one has done it
perfectly yet. Opera gets the nod for best keyboard shortcuts. For
example, I can close a tabbed page by holding Shift and clicking on
the page tab; clicking the tab for the foreground page bounces me to
the last page I viewed. I can even drag tabs around to keep pages in
neat order. Both Firefox and Netscape offer tabbing that is a bit more
Time to Switch?
Of the four browsers I've worked with --IE, Firefox, Netscape, and
Opera -- Firefox 1.0 stood out as the best overall choice. The browser
does an excellent job of faithfully displaying Web pages, offers a
superior user interface, and suffers fewer crashes than my previous
favorite, Opera. It's also highly customizable through something
called Firefox Extensions. I installed one module that lets me
navigate pages using mouse gestures, a feature I became addicted to
during my Opera years.</p>
One area where you'll hear browser makers tout an advantage is
performance, or how quickly a browser can show you Web sites. I'd urge
you to take any such claims with a grain of salt. In my testing, I
found that performance was usually determined by the speed of my
Internet connection (not surprisingly) rather than one browser or
another. Although Firefox tended to outperform all the others in
loading complex pages, we're talking about a difference of one to two
When the dust settles, the different browsers offer their own unique
benefits and drawbacks. Here's a quick take on which browser might be
best for you, depending on how you work.
Firefox: The best all-around alternative to IE. Great for power users
who want to add functionality to the browser, and appropriate for
newbies just getting started.
Internet Explorer: Best for corporate users in controlled environments
and those who spend most of their time on Microsoft-branded or
IE-specific Web sites.
Netscape: Best for AOL subscribers (with AOL Instant Messenger
integration) and those who are willing to put up with some rough edges
to use other goodies, including an HTML editor and e-mail program.
Opera: Best for power users who keep many pages open at once and
perform frequent downloads. There's an e-mail program included, but
banner ads on the free version of the browser are annoying.
So is it time to ditch Internet Explorer once and for all? In a word,
no. Microsoft requires its browser to access its Windows Update and
Office Update services, and it's not uncommon to find Web sites that
are designed specifically for IE. Pages such as MSNBC.com can
challenge non-Microsoft browsers. Firefox renders MSNBC pretty well,
while Opera fails to render the fly-out menus on the navigation
For the time being, most users will need to keep IE handy, just in
case. Keep in mind that you can have more than one browser on your
computer. If one acts up, close it and launch the other.
But for general-purpose Web browsing, there is no reason to put off
the switch a minute longer. Firefox, Netscape, and Opera are an
impressive trio of IE alternatives that could help shelter you from
the daily blizzard of Internet exploits.
Michael Desmond is a freelance writer living in Burlington,
Vermont. His wife doesn't understand how anyone can get so excited
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