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 stripes.
A lot of the credit can go to the folks at 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--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.
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 Explorer.
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 running it.
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 rigid.
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.
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 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 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 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.