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Explorer losing out in browser wars

Should an alternative web browser be in your 2005 plans?

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?

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 stripes.

A lot of the credit can go to the open-source Mozilla 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: AOL'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, Opera, has been serving disaffected IE users for years.

With so many choices just a software download away, questions swirl. Which browser is best? Why should you care? And after all is said and done, should you really switch?

Users are deserting Internet Explorer for many reasons but security is the main catalyst. 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, a billing system with your browser or websites that offer dynamic interfaces. But those same controls can be misused or targeted, amplifying the threat from malicious code.

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 made IE attractive in the first place. It wasn't until October that Microsoft offered a wholesale update (in the form of Windows XP Service Pack 2) that helped close many of the vulnerabilities in IE.

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 running it.

Perhaps more frustrating than security leaks is the fact that Microsoft has long given up 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 realised it the instant I fired up multiple pages in a single Opera program window. It lets you browse half-a-dozen web pages with ease, jumping from one to the next simply by clicking on the tabs at the top of the window. Multiple tabbed pages can be opened in the background, so they load while you look at the page in the foreground.

Not all tabbing systems are created equal and none is perfect. Opera gets the nod for best keyboard shortcuts, allowing you to close a tabbed page by holding Shift and clicking on the page tab; clicking the tab for the foreground page bounces you to the last page viewed. Firefox and Netscape offer tabbing that is a bit more rigid.

Of these best-known browsers – IE, Firefox, Netscape and Opera – Firefox 1.0 stands out. It faithfully displays web pages, offers a superior user interface and suffers few crashes. It can be customised through Firefox Extensions. For example, one module lets you navigate pages using mouse gestures.

Take with a pinch of salt browser makers' claims of a performance advantage - how quickly a browser can show you websites. Performance is usually determined by the speed of your 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 seconds.

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 websites.

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 email program.

Opera: Best for power users who keep many pages open at once and perform frequent downloads. There's an email 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 websites 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 bar.

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.


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