My 9/30/07 Missoulian column: Browsers abound for Web.
Web browsers are such an integral part of computers these days – and the Web is so entrenched in our lives – that most of the time we just jump online and run with it. Software engineers (and marketers) make it easy. In Windows, the default browser is Internet Explorer, and there’s always a blue “e” icon on the desktop and in the “Start” menu. On an Apple Macintosh, the Safari browser is marked by an icon that looks like a compass in the dock.
There are big differences in browsers, and you have the option of installing others. In fact, if you are more than a casual surfer and use the Web for e-commerce, banking, research or work, or if you just want more speed and security, you should consider other browsers.
Some Web browsers are more standards complaint; in other words, they adhere to design standards established by organizations that work to improve Web browsers and Web sites. Some are safer for spyware. Some are very good in terms of speed and security, but are used so little they hardly register as a blip on the Internet’s radar screen. Many newer browsers include features such as link correction (for when you mistype a URL), news readers, mailers and tabs for viewing multiple Web pages.
Let’s look at browsers one by one, beginning with the most widely used:
Internet Explorer for Windows is the dominant browser in use. Because the Windows operating system has a 90 percent market share, IE is used by about 60 percent of Web surfers. The most recent version, IE7, and the previous version, IE6, make up the bulk of these browsers. ( Internet Explorer ).
A big problem with all Web browsers is they are to some degree conduits for spyware. They’re vulnerable because of their complexity and because of all the things they’re asked to do, such as play games and videos, and run code that Web sites require for animations and sending forms.
And unfortunately, Internet Explorer has problems. According to Brian Krebs, author of the Washington Post’s Security Fix blog, IE had critical flaws that went unpatched for 284 days in 2006.
That means that for most of 2006, IE was open to attacks. Some of these exploits resulted in spyware infections and theft of personal information when users simply visited a malicious Web site. The problems reside in the underlying code that is tightly integrated into Windows and the fact that Windows has such a huge market share. (For Windows, be sure the automatic update feature is turned on so you receive patches as they are released; IE7 is an automatic update, too).
In contrast, Krebs writes, “Internet Explorer’s closest competitor in terms of market share – Mozilla’s Firefox browser – experienced a single period lasting just nine days last year in which exploit code for a serious security hole was posted online before Mozilla shipped a patch to remedy the problem.”
This brings us to Firefox. Firefox was developed by the Mozilla Foundation, a nonprofit organization with programmers around the world. Firefox has a market share of about 25 percent, and is growing steadily. ( Firefox ).
Because Firefox is open source, bugs and security problems are patched quickly and automatically. When there is a Firefox security fix, a window opens that says the software needs to be updated, and the download takes place instantly. Firefox also is standards compliant, more so than Internet Explorer, so it works well with those coding standards established by Web authorities.
Another great Firefox feature is the numerous add-on applications that can be used with the browser. Many of these extensions fall into what I call the “right click” category: by highlighting a word on a Web page and right clicking it with the mouse, for example, you can look it up in any number of dictionaries or translate it. Check the word in Wikipedia, shop for it, map it, search for it, social network it. There are language toolbars and eBay toolbars and even extensions that help you write your own add-ons and toolbars.
The Safari browser ships with Apple’s OS X, and like the back end of the operating system, it is open source. Safari also is available for Windows, but it’s still in the beta testing phase. Safari’s market share hovers around 5 percent, a little below Apple’ total market share. It’s important to note here that browser statistics can be misleading, as Safari and some other programs will masquerade as Internet Explorer to work better with some Web sites. ( Safari ).
Plug-ins for Safari – not as many as Firefox – allow advertisement blocking and right-click capabilities. I use Safari all the time myself, as it is fast and stable. It’s secure, too, with only six security advisories in the last few years, and features automatic updates.
Opera is an interesting browser. Its market share is around 2 percent, and it is available for Windows, Mac and Linux. ( Opera ).
Somewhere, I read an interview with a member of a hacking group who had become reasonably famous for his exploits. The interviewer asked him how to be secure on the Web, and the hacker replied to use Opera in Windows. While Opera isn’t perfect when it comes to security, it is good. With Opera, it’s easy to zoom the window larger, it has ad blockers and there are “tiny” versions for mobile phones, handheld computers, automobiles and even Nintendo video game consoles. Opera isn’t open source, however, but that shouldn’t keep you from trying it.
Netscape is another browser out there, one with a complicated history. Originally released in 1994, Netscape was one of the first commercial Web browsers available. For a time it had 90 percent market share, like Internet Explorer does now. By 1998, Netscape and Internet Explorer were in a dead heat because Microsoft began bundling IE with Windows. Today, Netscape’s market share hovers at less than 1 percent. Netscape actually released its source code in 1998, and Mozilla has been working with it since to develop Firefox. The current version, 9, works fine with Windows and Apple, and older versions are the only good browser for Apple’s OS 9. ( Netscape ).
Camino is a browser for Mac OS X, and is built on the same open source engine as Firefox. It’s secure – only seven security bugs in the last two years – and fast, but suffers from a lack of users.
Camino features include session saving and ad blocking, and can be used alongside other browsers, of course. While it’s used by very few, it deserves a look. ( Camino ).
So, which browser do I use? All of them.
Safari is very fast on my MacBook, and I use Firefox for many things because of its handy add-ons. To test Web sites, I also use Opera, Camino and Netscape, and Internet Explorer in Windows.
All of these browsers are easy to download and install, and you’ll get a message asking if you want to import your favorites links. You can try another browser without committing to it, but think about what you do and how secure and problem-free you want to be.