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Battle of the Web Browsers

Battle of the Web browsers: Plug-ins and extensions

The browsers' plug-ins and extensions continue to be important criteria for many of the serious users. People have their own favorites, and they often choose their browser for the plug-ins.

Firefox continues to have the most extreme API that allows a number of different types of extensions and plug-ins, and many of these come with their own sub-extensions. Firebug, for instance, has its own ecosystem complete with both browser and server-side plug-ins for debugging Web applications. Greasemonkey makes it simpler for people to write a bit of JavaScript to create a plug-in, and these Greasemonkey scripts trade online. Both remain reasons why I instinctively turn to Firefox.

The other browsers don't offer the same sophistication as Firefox, but they come through with what most people will want: a way to bundle together some JavaScript, CSS, and HTML to do the job. This formula handles most of what anyone would want to do, and it's why the majority of the major extensions are available for all of the high-profile browsers. Once you write the JavaScript, porting between browsers is relatively simple.

This has made it simpler for Chrome and Safari to catch up quickly with Firefox. Safari has a similar API to Chrome, which has helped clear the way for extension creators to port their work from Chrome to the Apple browser. Opera now is pushing a similar JavaScript-based plug-in framework, and I expect it will be an attractive target for extension developers too.

IE continues to be a challenge for JavaScript developers and an opportunity for those who know C++ and ActiveX. This may not matter much in the future because Microsoft is pushing pure HTML5 development more and more. IE9 has new ways to "pin" websites (that is, attach them to the Windows Taskbar or Start menu or wherever), and I expect these may begin to take the place of extensions in the future. In a way, they're almost like plug-ins.

Battle of the Web browsers: Developer tools

In the beginning, there were a few proprietary JavaScript debuggers for IE, then Firebug came along and changed the game for everyone. Google bundled a great debugger with Chrome when it launched, and Apple did the same with Safari. Now Microsoft is calling its version F12.

For most intents and purposes, the tools are pretty much the same now. Most of them make it easy to insert break points and track network traffic. Exceptions are reported and it's possible to dig into the data structures to figure out what is going wrong with the site. My favorite feature is the "inspect element" that lets you point to a segment of a page, then go to the part of the markup that generates it. This is fairly standard now.

There are still some differentiators. Opera offers a unique tool for remotely debugging websites on smartphones running Opera Mobile or Opera Mini. A number of cool Firebug extensions for Firefox also bring down even more information to help debugging. Drupal for Firebug, for instance, connects with the server to suck down additional data about the server.

Battle of the Web browsers: Security

The level of trust we can put in the information in our browser continues to ebb and flow as the weasels in the shadows come up with schemes to separate us from our money. Opera has enhanced the information in its URL field by deleting some of the data. The core domain is easier to understand, but the weasels have figured out ways to hide the domain in a sea of weird characters. Opera strips these out and adds extra information about reported security violations. Microsoft is following the same path to try to cut down on social engineering.

Firefox is taking the lead on implementing a "do not track" feature that sends a request to the Web server not to follow the behavior of the user. This is completely optional for the Web server, of course, but some companies, including the Associated Press, are pledging to honor the requests.

There's also some debate over how the browser should handle misconfigured or invalid certificates used for SSL encryption. Some websites don't want to pay the extra costs of renewing them. Others install them incorrectly. The problem is common enough that most people assume the website developer is incompetent, not malicious. Chrome is careful and alerts you to the problems with great urgency, but it can get tedious. Some people complain that Chrome is too doctrinaire and demanding because Firefox lets you get rid of the warnings with one click. Other users will like Chrome's attention to detail.

Website security is bound to grow more complicated. Recent reports showed how hackers could get valid certificates for domains like google.com from the apparently more casual services in countries like Iran. All of the assurances that these new browser features provide can't begin to deal with such weaknesses.

Battle of the Web browsers: Wacko features

The browser builders continue to look for new features to attract users; some of these are worth noting and perhaps even switching allegiances for. Opera has always been ahead of many of the trends, and it continues to innovate. The tabs for open Web pages at the top of the box are now a bit easier to organize because you can stack them together. Just as a city starts building up when it can't build out, you can start piling up similar Web pages and come back to them.

Opera is also building in mail, a feature that was once bundled with the browser in the Mozilla stack. I personally think that the death of email is an overblown story, and many users will like the fact that their browser is watching for new messages.

There are other more intriguing ideas. Microsoft, for instance, is pushing something it calls IE9 Enhanced, an edition of the browser that comes bundled with a slightly tighter connection to Bing and MSN. This isn't as revolutionary as it sounds. Netscape once made a big chunk of money from owning its start page, and Mozilla continues to pay the bills with hefty checks from Google for sending along searches. Microsoft's packaging, though, seems to suggest more bundling and more enhancements are to come.

These enhancements aren't limited to Microsoft sites. IE9 offers a way to "pin" a URL, which is like a bookmark but with a site menu attached that Microsoft calls a "jump list." Website operators can build this menu into their site's meta tags by adding the type "msapplication-task."

The worst new feature is Safari's reader function, a tool that strips out the ads from a page and presents the content in a box that floats above the regular page. What? You don't like the ads? Tough. As a writer who gets income from attaching ads to content provided free of charge, it's impossible for me to be unbiased about this terrible shiv stuck in the back of the free and open Web. The ad blockers are bad enough, but they're not included in each browser -- and arguably only the angriest ad-haters go out of their way to download them.

The best Web browser

Is there a best choice? No, and choosing is harder than ever. The teams are adept at copying each other's best features, and the competition must be brutal. For us users, though, the torture is like trying to pick one chocolate from a sampler. The browsers don't come with calories, so we can choose all five and use them for different tasks. It won't make you fat, but it may consume all of your RAM.

I routinely switch among all five browsers these days. Although Firefox seemed to slip behind Chrome for a bit, it is now faster and more able. IE9 is also rising, and I'm impressed by the ideas coming out of the IE team. It's thinking hard about new problems like video card integration and power consumption, not just how fast JavaScript runs through an endless loop.

Porting Safari to the PC was an odd move several years ago, but now I'm glad it's there. I routinely find myself using Safari on my PC just because it's a WebKit browser, close kin to the browsers that dominate the smartphone. That influence may be changing, though, because both Firefox and Opera are pushing into the domain, no doubt because they're certain that mobile browsing will end up ruling the Web.

As more and more of our work migrates to tablets and smartphones, and the differences among the browsers continue to narrow, choosing the best desktop browser may soon take a backseat to choosing the best mobile browser. We may even become content to use whichever desktop browser the IT drones have installed for us.

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