Web & communication software

The Best Web Browser: Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Opera, or Safari?

The battle of the Web browsers: Firefox 4.0 beta

The old Netscape died years ago, but somehow it begat the Firefox browser that gave us many of the innovations being copied by IE and others. The project found a nice source of revenue by routing search requests to Google, and this supported much of the work of the last few years.

No one knows how stable this source of revenue will be in the future. Google leapfrogged Firefox by building a browser of its own, in part to fix the headaches caused by malfunctioning plug-ins like Flash. Firefox is now offering its own "crash protection," which restarts plug-ins when they stop delivering. Firefox handles this internally, though, because the browser still runs most of the work in one process. Chrome relies more on the operating system by sticking each page in different OS processes, an approach that the Mozilla group will probably eventually come around to using.

One of the strengths of Firefox continues to be the large collection of extensions and plug-ins. These can all be written in a mixture of JavaScript, CSS, and HTML, something that makes them a bit easier for the average Web developer to tackle. (In contrast, Microsoft's add-ons can be written in C++.)

Firefox add-ons like Greasemonkey make it even easier to write simple scripts that meddle with the DOM of incoming data, a nice playpen for creating your own quick add-ons. Firefox's model is pretty sophisticated too. While many widgets and extensions in the world are limited to JavaScript, CSS, and HTML, Firefox offers serious programmers more control with XUL. Is it necessary? I'm not sure, but it certainly makes it possible to create more sophisticated applications.

Firefox has not offered the fastest JavaScript performance on the computation-heavy JavaScript benchmarks, but that may not be important for most users. The speed of rendering and the responsiveness of the Internet connection are probably much more important to average browsing. Nevertheless, the Mozilla developers say a new JavaScript engine will be arriving in the fall.

Best for: People who enjoy the wide-open collection of extensions.

Worst for: People who write long-running scientific simulations in JavaScript.

The battle of the Web browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer 9.0 beta

The days when practically everyone used Internet Explorer are long gone, but the browser continues to dominate, thanks to the fact that it may or may not be integrated with the Windows operating system, depending upon the political winds. Microsoft noticed the erosion from total world domination several years ago and is now rapidly adopting some of the best features from the alternatives. Tabs were added some time ago, and Internet Explorer add-ons are now plentiful enough to form a gallery. Many of the innovations that began with Firefox and Opera are now available with IE8.

Some of Microsoft's claims may strike you as a bit funny. The company notes on a checklist that IE8 supports "Web standards," then points out it supports only CSS 2.1 because it's more common than the newer CSS 3.0. Well, yes, and CSS 2.1 will remain more customary until IE officially adopts it because most Web developers will want to avoid heavy use of any feature that doesn't work on one of the most ubiquitous browsers.

But if Microsoft isn't on the cutting edge of the new standards collectively called HTML5, it's pushing its own features. IE8 helps people "browse safely," a worthy goal that it pursues by offering more and better ways to check the provenance of the information. I'm not sure whether it's possible to actually attach a number to this protection -- Microsoft claims that IE is "5 times better than Chrome" and "2.9 times better than Firefox in protecting against malicious malware." The company claims IE can do a better job of catching fake URLs and URLs that lead to sites pretending to be something they're not. Whether or not this can be quantified, it's a promising path to take because the provenance of information is a big, big challenge for the Internet.

This focus, however, is coming after a long series of security holes in either IE or the add-ons given too much power by IE. Any search engine can help you find stories about hundreds of vulnerabilities found and patched. The root of all of these troubles seems to come when IE is a bit too generous to plug-in packages. This is almost certainly a deep failure of a strategy to let developers add many features that work very well with Windows and not other systems. ActiveX controls, for instance, offer nice performance through deep integration with the operating system, so they help cement IE and Windows' position. The only problem is that this deep integration has produced many, many vulnerabilities over the years, and it's not clear that Microsoft has finally stopped them all.

I'm personally torn about the approach Microsoft has taken. While this deep integration has opened up many opportunities, it has also created problems beyond the security dangers. Add-on developers have access to the registry and other weird corners of the operating system, a big difference from the simpler sandboxes used by the other browsers. I'm sure some Web-based game developers appreciate this speed, but I think a simpler model would have been easier on everyone.

IE9 now offers many of the features that drew me to other browsers. There's a nicer developer tool for debugging JavaScript, and the speed is catching up to the others. The collection of IE add-ons is large and markedly different in style from those for other browsers. Many come from merchants who offer to help make it easier to search their catalogs, spy good deals, and of course spend money. There are so many toolbars that it's easy to build a browser with a fat header and a tiny spot for real content. 

In the end, IE's greatest strength may continue to be its fading dominance. Web developers may skip testing on Safari or Opera, but they know that the boss or the boss's boss is probably using the default browser shipped with the computer. Despite the prevalence of good cross-platform libraries, I continue to find Web pages that only work on IE. This is the kind of feedback loop that reinforces dominance.

Best for: People who don't care or don't want to care. IE is still the most likely to work with most websites.

Worst for: People who worry about browser-based attacks and those who want to try the latest HTML5.

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