Windows is still the top dog on the Internet pile, and its native browser, Internet Explorer, is still the browser of choice for the vast majority of people who surf the web. But the battle lines have been drawn and alternate browsers are gaining momentum, with each set of converts swearing that their browser of choice is the fastest, the safest, and the most powerful.
For the uninitiated, yes, there are other browsers besides Internet Explorer, a.k.a. IE. MacIntosh offers its native browser, Safari, only for Mac operating systems, so we will disregard it and focus instead on the browsers that are available in formats for different platforms. Also off the list are the for-purchase browsers, which are so sparsely distributed that their impact is practically nonexistent.
Despite the best efforts of the competition, Internet Explorer (IE) runs roughshod over every other browser. Depending on who you ask and the dates, it is the browser of choice for up to 95 percent of everyone who goes online, worldwide. Even more conservative figures rate IE as the top dog, coming in around the 86 percentile.
Simply put, Internet Explorer is the most readily available, simplest browser to use, and is therefore the most widely used. If you’ve got Windows on your computer, you’ve got IE.
Web builders create their sites with IE in mind. IE seamlessly displays text, graphics, ActiveX content, video and multimedia across an increasingly complex Internet landscape. If it’s a virtual landscape, that’s fine – IE is the foundation underlying that lush garden, thank you very much.
But even while the web offerings shift and favor IE, Microsoft has begun to circle the wagons. In an age of multi-browser availability, Microsoft shut down IE support for Macs in 2005, and announced that IE 7 would be available only for those who purchased either Vista or used MSN as an ISP (Internet Service Provider.) Ultimately, IE 7 was given a wide-scale release despite the earlier announcements, but the new version functions differently in XP and in Vista, and IE 7 isn’t even available for Windows 2000. Windows defended the ommission by saying that the older version of its operating system would require significant back-engineering to implement IE 7, more than would be practical for an operating system that’s on its way out.
In terms of functionality, Internet Explorer cannot be faulted. It works. If anything, it works too well. It is notorious among the technically-inclined, because IE is the most susceptible browser to viruses and spyware, precisely because of its maximized Internet compatibility.
While IE can turn off graphics, Firefox offers more flexibility. You may choose to block all graphics with Firefox – or only ActiveX plugins like video and flash.
Firefox is an Open Source program, and as such can be downloaded and used for free. Its open source bloodlines allow for several pages worth of plug ins, themes and add-ons, created by the more tech-savvy of its end users. Driven by the same Gecko engine that’s the basis for Netscape, Firefox has its pluses and its minuses.
In terms of security, Firefox generally comes out on top. Speed of download can vary from one computer to another and one page to another. In terms of customization, Firefox leaves IE in the dust. Firefox offers countless options that simply don’t exist for the Microsoft offering, ranging from decorative themes to a color selection tool and more. What’s more, Firefox is available for all three of the major operating systems: Windows, Mac and Linux. Linux/Unix can only operate IE when there’s a Windows kernel installed, either in a parallel partition or as an insert, and IE ended MacIntosh support December 2005.
For a long time Firefox didn’t have WYSIWYG editor capabilities and couldn’t handle a lot of IE video and other media plugins correctly. That’s changing, partly because Firefox is growing more sophisticated and partly because web builders are recognizing that cross-browser compatibility really is a Big Deal.
Firefox isn’t perfect. It’s technically a Beta (or test) version of the Mozilla browser, and as such can become buggy and unstable with each revision, crashing at the most inopportune moments. As compensation, however, Firefox also has a native crash-recovery capability that asks if you want to resume browsing where you left off. If you were using tabbed browsing, select “yes” and it takes you back to all the pages you were visiting just prior to the crash. It won’t recover any text you may have been entering before the browser died, but at least you don’t have to go back and track down the URL to a web page you didn’t take time to bookmark.
Firefox also lacks a folder view for FTP (file transfer protocol) sites. Unless you’re a web builder, chances are you’ll never miss that one. But for someone who wants to upload several files to their website without using an FTP program, it’s on the wish list.
Despite its shortcomings, one of the most attractive aspects of Firefox may just be that when you download it, you’re only getting the browser. It arrives without spyware or viruses, and without superfluous software (such as the RealPlayer, a passive download arriving uninvited with Netscape.)
Users of this alternative browser sing its praises in perfect harmony. It was the first browser to incorporate tabbed browsing, it’s available for Wii and for your cell phone, it’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than…
Oh wait. That was Superman.
In all seriousness, the Opera browser, like Firefox, is more secure than Internet Explorer, and it does indeed come in versions compatible with Wii and cell phones. Also like Firefox, Opera has a large community that’s more than happy to induct you into their midst and educate you on the care and feeding of the Opera browser. Custom options are built into the browser or can be downloaded and installed, in the same manner as the Firefox extensions and plugins.
One ambitious tester avowed that Opera was much faster than either IE or Firefox at downloading web pages and scripts, though even he cautioned that everyone should perform their own tests in order to determine what works best for their individual computer. He cited specific criteria for his tests and documented response time, however, and painted a pretty convincing picture that Opera outperforms both Internet Explorer and Firefox in multiple areas of Internet browsing.
Opera has several unique features not found in either IE or Firefox. Rather than bookmarking a single page, you can bookmark a group of pages you regularly visit. The function is called “save session.” And if you’ve ever wanted to perform some sort of Voodoo ritual on the web designer who created a horizontal scrollbar on their page, Opera has a “fit to window” option to jimmy that square peg around until it fits into the too-small hole, after all!
Bittorrent users don’t need to download a separate program. Version 9 of the Opera Browser handles torrents natively.
Perhaps Opera’s most innovative feature is voice integration. Using Opera, you can talk to control the program, and have web pages read to you. For someone who’s visually impaired or just a multi-task wizard, the voice feature provides a valuable resource. The voice function in Opera is only viable for the Windows environment. It requires Windows 2000 or XP and requires a headset with a microphone.
Firefox does offer a voice-text interface among its plugins, but comments on the Firefox site suggest that in real-life use, its version comes up short.
Back in the day, Netscape was THE BROWSER. It dominated the 1990’s as the primary access for Internet surfers. But in the latter 1990’s, Internet Explorer offered so many technological advances that Netscape was all but buried. Also a factor was Microsoft’s distribution deals for IE, which targeted ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and vendors, convincing them to distribute the Microsoft browser to their customers instead of Netscape.
In 2007, Netscape still exists and can be downloaded for free. The Netscape browser home page states that, “Installation may include Netscape 8.1.2 Browser, Netscape ISP, McAfee, Rhapsody, Real Arcade and WeatherBug.”
Having a hate-hate relationship with spyware and knowing how hard it is to eradicate once downloaded, this author is unwilling to download and install Netscape for any reason. Any browser that forces an entire library of software onto your computer is not worth downloading.
WHICH WAY TO MY BROWSER?
The truth of the matter is, nobody can decide which browser works best for you. It depends on several factors, including your level of comfort with new technology, how you use the Internet, and how patient you are during a learning curve.
The best approach is to download each of the respective programs (minus Netscape, which is not recommended) and install, then using the new browser exclusively for a few weeks. There is a learning curve involved with a new browser. How do you bookmark? How do you customize ______? Chances are you will never know if you don’t give it a test run. And all of the aforementioned browsers are free, so you’ve got nothing to lose.