By Jon: First published in Online Currents
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Ongoing security concerns with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer have led several commentators to suggest that users should switch to another web browser. Is this really necessary, and if so what are the alternatives? In this article I compare Internet Explorer with two rival programs: Mozilla Firefox and the Norwegian browser Opera.
A Brief History (And Mosaic begat…)
The basic functions of a web browsing program are simple: to download files from the Internet, store them on the user’s hard disk and display that content on the user’s screen. Prior to the Web there were many special-purpose programs which allowed this for specific kinds of content, but it was only in 1993 that the development and wide acceptance of HTML as a language for web pages made it possible to write general-purpose browsers.
The first widely used browser was a text-based system called Lynx (i.e. ‘Links’), beginning a tradition of fanciful names which incorporate puns and in-jokes (‘Lynx’, for instance, is also defined as ‘an animal that eats gophers’). The rapid spread of Windows over the same period prompted the (US) National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) to develop a graphic-based browser called Mosaic. When this was released free for non-commercial applications, its use became widespread: it was, in fact, the first ‘standard’ internet software.
Mosaic in turn was overtaken by Netscape Navigator (usually known just as ‘Netscape’), which was developed by the same team after leaving NCSA. This began as a relatively small and simple browser but rapidly accumulated email-handling and newsreading facilities, and later a chat system and HTML editor, together known as ‘Communicator’. Originally released as shareware with a non-enforced obligation to purchase after a month, Netscape was made free in the face of competition from Microsoft Internet Explorer. By the late 90’s Netscape held 90% of browser market share.
Meanwhile Microsoft had launched and rapidly improved their own free browser/email/news package, known as the Microsoft Internet Explorer, or MS-IE. Clever integration of this with the Windows operating system made it possible to connect up Web hyperlinks with the Windows Explorer and business software like Excel and Word, but also provoked an antitrust action led by Netscape, who claimed that Microsoft were forcing MS-IE on to customers who bought Windows. Despite this setback, by Version 5, MS-IE was technically well ahead of Netscape. As the internet grew rapidly over this period, most new web users started with MS-IE, and many others moved across to it. Many of them never knew or cared that there were alternatives.
Eventually Netscape was taken over by AOL and despite several impressive new versions failed to recapture any interest. As Netscape’s market collapsed its staffers decided to try and salvage something from the wreckage. A group of programmers resurrected the code name Mozilla (‘Mosaic-killer Godzilla’) which had been used in Netscape’s development, and set up the open-source Mozilla Foundation. By 2002 they were able to produce a small, fast browser/email/chat/HTML editor suite. This was released for free under the Mozilla name and rapidly became popular with open-source proponents and users opposed to Microsoft’s monopoly. It was also made available for Linux systems. As Mozilla has grown in size, the Foundation has recently spun off and released Firefox, a browser-only version of Mozilla for users who don’t want the other components in the suite.
And what about Opera? While the ‘browser wars’ were going on in the US a Norwegian company was quietly developing and distributing a browser based on entirely new code. This is Opera, another Internet program suite (browser/HTML editor/email/chat), which has been under development since 1995 and has a small but growing band of dedicated users.
The browser market will remain fluid as long as the web itself continues to grow and develop with new kinds of material and new delivery methods. All the major browsers support the use of ‘add-ins’ like Macromedia Flash and Adobe Reader which provide the capability to deal with new file types as they arise, but the pressure will always be there to come up with better, faster, more tightly integrated browsers. Will MS-IE be the next champion to topple?
Well, not any time soon. Browser market shares for May 2004 (before the arrival of Firefox) were estimated by OneStat (http://www.onestat.com) to be:
1. Microsoft IE 6.0 – 69.3%
2. Microsoft IE 5.5 – 12.9%
3. Microsoft IE 5.0 – 10.8%
4. Mozilla – 2.1%
5. Opera 7.0 – 1.02%
6. Microsoft IE 4.0 –0.6%
7. Safari (Apple’s new Mac-based browser) – 0.71%
So MS-IE has a long lead, but then so did Mosaic and Netscape.
MS-IE – Cons and Pros
Generally speaking standardised software is a Good Thing. There are many advantages to using the same programs as nearly everyone else. What makes Internet Explorer any different? Leaving aside anti-Microsoft sentiment, critics of MS-IE – for instance, Rose Vines in Australian PC User for October 2004 – have four objective counts against it.
Firstly, MS-IE is simply not the best browser. One simple but powerful boost to user-friendliness – the use of tabs for separate panels appearing within a single window – has been adopted by all its major rivals but not by Microsoft. Using skins to customise your browser is a simple process in Opera or Firefox but a clumsy and limited work-around in MS-IE. Blocking ads and popup windows is tricky and involves add-in software.
Secondly, MS-IE development is slowing down. As Microsoft moves their resources over to a new operating system (nicknamed Longhorn) which will have a rebuilt browser, less attention will be given to improving and debugging MS-IE.
Thirdly, MS-IE is buggy: it has many known problems and ‘issues’, and more are being discovered all the time. The sheer size of the package (45Mb of compressedfiles for the MS-IE Version 6 SP2 installation) provides a labyrinth of hiding places for hackers to discover flaws and weaknesses. And while a flaw in a word processing program may cause the loss of a document, a flaw in a browser can allow intruders to get access to, steal from or seriously damage your computer. Firewalls and spyware checkers can help to block this; but even with these in place, MS-IE has too many known and potential problems to use safely.
Fourthly, and ironically, MS-IE’s very popularity makes it more vulnerable. Any hacker planning a spectacular attack is going to concentrate on the program that has 90% of the market share. Less popular programs are less likely to attract undesirable attention.
What about the pros? In addition to the advantages of staying with a standard, there are still a few good reasons to persevere with MS-IE.
Firstly, Microsoft has addressed many of the security issues with their SP2 upgrade to Windows XP, which contains an upgraded version of MS-IE as well as a much improved firewall. The upgrade is available for free for download or on CD from Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com.au); whether it will reduce the number of vulnerabilities discovered daily remains to be seen.
Secondly, old technology though it may be, MS-IE does do some things that other browsers don’t: for instance, the Save As Web Archive option on the File menu is not available on any other browser. Neither Firefox nor Opera appear to offer the MS-IE Synchronise option for background downloading of web material while the computer is unattended.
And finally, there are some sites that won’t work with anything but MS-IE; notably Microsoft itself, with Windows updates and the Microsoft Clip Gallery. Even if you don’t use MS-IE for anything else you will need to keep it on your system for these sites alone. So the choice is not really whether to abandon MS-IE altogether, but whether to supplement it with Mozilla, Firefox or Opera for everyday browsing.
Mozilla Firefox – fast and friendly
My own acquaintance with the Mozilla suite came via a Linux-using friend. (Unlike MS-IE, both Mozilla and Opera cater extensively to non-Windows platforms like the Macintosh, Linux and PDAs. In keeping with its Scandinavian origins, Opera has even developed browsers for Internet-equipped Nokia mobile phones.) After his recommendation I began using Mozilla, mainly for its tabbed browsing: but since I use other programs for email, newsgroups and chat, only the browser component was of value to me. When the Firefox stand-alone browser came along a few months ago I switched to that, and I’ve been extremely happy with it.
The most impressive aspect of Firefox is its tiny size: the installation package is less than 5Mb. In that comes a fast, fully customisable browser with built-in protection against ads and annoying popup windows and – best of all – tabbed browsing. Any hyperlink or toolbar link button can be right-clicked with the mouse to bring up a local menu which includes the option ‘Open Link in New Tab’. Choosing this option brings up a row of tabs across the top of the screen showing the page titles. In Mozilla the newly opened page became the active window immediately, but in Firefox the new page can be made to open in the background, allowing the user to continue reading the topmost page while pages from the selected links load underneath. Once a tab is visible it can be left-clicked to access or right-clicked to reload the current page, close this page and hide the tab or close and hide all the other pages. An elegant, brilliant solution to a common problem. The only functional differences I could see between Firefox and the Mozilla browser are that the menus in Firefox are smaller and more Microsoft-like – e.g. Tools/Options takes the place of Edit/Preferences – and that Mozilla has toolbars that can be rolled up out of the way. Both programs have a full screen view available through pressing F11, as do MS-IE and Opera.
Pop-up protection and advertising blocking in Firefox is equally intelligent. Spontaneous popup windows are suppressed automatically, unless the user has specified that the site address is OK. Where a hyperlink would normally open a popup window, clicking on it once does nothing, but clicking on it a second time indicates to the browser that the user really does want the popup, and the window appears. Nearly all advertising images are quietly and efficiently suppressed and the web page redrawn to avoid them. This is a browser for users, not for advertisers.
Cookie handling provides similar options to MS-IE, with the user able to suppress or permit cookies on a site-by-site basis, while the program remembers the choices made for a particular site. Colours and fonts can be customised and – a useful feature in any program – the user can zoom in or out on the text of a page with a mouse scroll wheel. Existing bookmarks and favourites can be imported from Netscape or MS-IE, although the task of untangling them from the Firefox menu may take a few minutes. Firefox can be customised with new skins, although these require the cumbersome runtime Java environment to open, and upgrades and new versions can be found at and downloaded from http://www.getfirefox.com – nothttp://www.firefox.com, which until recently was the domain of an artist called Kevin Karpenske, and is now shared between the Firefox browser and a UK company of the same name.
The only tiny problem I had with Firefox was that when using Outlook, clicking on a hyperlink in email brought up the webpage twice, in two browsers: Firefox and my earlier default browser Mozilla. I was eventually able to fix this by setting MS-IE as the default browser and then re-setting Firefox as the default again through Tools/Options.
Up till now I have tended to support open source software in principle rather than practice; but Firefox and Mozilla are impressive demonstrations of what can be achieved through this approach. More power to them!
Opera – the Norwegian alternative
Unlike Firefox, Opera comes as a complete Internet suite and as far as I can tell there is no way to unbundle it. Unfortunately Opera suffers from one of two disadvantages; it must either be paid for, at a current price of $US39, or it displays banner ads in the page heading (although these disappear in full screen view). Apart from this it is comparable with Firefox in its download size (about 3.4Mb), its use of tabs, its customisability and its user-friendliness. Like Mozilla, it is also available for Linux systems. Mozilla has never publicly acknowledged any debt to Opera, but obviously they must have been aware of their competition. Clear evidence of borrowing can be seen in the use of the middle mouse button by both programs to open a link in a background tab, or when clicked on a tab to close it.
Opera claims to be the fastest browser in existence, and clocks its own download times with a speed bar at the bottom of the screen. Anecdotal comparisons suggest that any speed differences are relatively minor. Among the features of Opera that are not part of Firefox as such are support for what are quaintly called ‘mouse gestures’ – e.g. dragging the mouse to the right to move on to another page – and the ability to save and restore a complete session incorporating several windows. Both of these, however, are available as external add-ins for Firefox: so unless you have a penchant for things Norwegian, there is little to be gained by paying the extra for the ad-free version of Opera as opposed to paying nothing for the inherently ad-free Firefox. Like many worthy programs, Opera is not quite different enough.
Opera, Firefox and Mozilla – and many other browsers – are all available as free downloads, as is the (somewhat larger) Internet Explorer. They can also be found on the CDs that accompany many computer magazines. Note that some other browsers are built around MS-IE and will suffer from the same security issues. Users of these and of MS-IE (effectively everyone) should obtain and install the Windows XP Service Pack (SP) 1 upgrade to improve their security. But why not install Firefox in a spare half-hour and give it a whirl? You may find yourself – like many others – hooked on its user-first design.
Programs can be downloaded from the following sites:
Detailed material on all three browsers and the ‘Browser Wars’ can be obtained from Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org
A feature-by-feature comparison of all major browsers for several platforms can be found at http://www.useyourbrain.co.uk/internet-browser-comparison-chart.htm.
A comparison of Opera and Firefox can be found at