In late 1999, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer knocked off Netscape as the preferred way for people to get on the Internet. Even a federal antitrust lawsuit couldn’t loosen the MS stranglehold. Until recently, 95 percent of Internet users used Internet Explorer.
But Web surfers have been leaving Microsoft for Firefox, a free Web browser spun off from Netscape. There are several reasons for this change.
For the last couple of years, Microsoft has been loath to upgrade Internet Explorer, which means most of the interesting new features are on other browsers. And Web designers have begun to com- plain that IE does not support some of the newest standards for Web design.
But even more important, computer security experts say IE flaws tend to be more problematic than flaws in other browsers. In part that’s because, with 95 percent of the traffic, IE is a prime hacker target to the exclusion of all others.
The problem is made worse by the fact that Microsoft made a great effort to tie its browser to the Windows operating system. So if hackers can circumvent Explorer’s security, they might be able to hijack the whole computer.
IE also has two attributes that make it more vulnerable than other browsers. It uses a special Microsoft computer code called ActiveX that has been used by hackers to gain control of a computer. And it allows some Web sites, or trusted sites, to circumvent normal security controls.
“A vulnerability in IE is more likely to be dangerous because the browser’s tied to the low-level functioning of your computer,” says Christopher Faulkner, CEO of C I Host, a Web hosting company. (Microsoft has made improving security a priority, however, with its “trustworthy computing” initiative.)
Of course, no browser is completely safe. Firefox was recently targeted with a “phishing” scam, in which hackers tried to trick users into downloading a software program that could steal their identity.
It is always a good idea to use anti-virus software to scan and protect any computer used to go online. Also, many IT directors frown on employees downloading software without checking with them first.
Best of the Rest
Firefox is an open-source project run by the Mozilla Foundation. It has a simple, clean interface and looks much like the Netscape browser.
One nice Firefox feature (that’s found as well on browsers like Opera, Avant and Maxthon) is tabbed browsing, which means you can open more than one window inside a single browser, reducing clutter. You can switch windows by clicking different tabs along the top of the browser window.
Because Firefox is open-source, it is created and updated by thousands of volunteer programmers all over the world. While this may sound like a haphazard way to work, it means Firefox has many more people working on it than Microsoft can hope to hire to maintain its browser. It also means security fixes are often posted in hours, whereas Microsoft can take days to fix problems found in Explorer.
Opera is perhaps the last commercial browser. You can pay $39 to use it, or you can download it for free, but you are forced to accept an advertising window in the upper corner, though it is not really much of an annoyance. It does not import bookmarks automatically and comes preloaded with a bunch of bookmarked Web sites.
Opera is a bit more cluttered than other browsers, but the interface is customizable, so you can add or drop features. For Web-savvy users, it comes with some nice features, such as a built-in RSS newsreader so that you can collect news of your choice of subjects.
The Avant and Maxthon browsers are based on the same rendering engine that is used in IE, which means Web pages they open should look exactly the same as they do in IE. However, that also means they may have some of the same security flaws found in IE.
Both are very full-featured software, offering options such as ad blockers. (Sometimes the features can be a little overwhelming.) Avant appears to have the most complete ad blocker, with the most features and options, of all the browsers we tried.
These browsers have a lot of neat extras, including several mouse options. For example, when using Maxthon to do research, you can save groups of opened windows together, making it easier to pick up where you left off. Both Avant and Maxthon are probably too complicated for casual Web users, but anyone looking for the maximum number of options and features will have plenty to play with.
“Maxthon is definitely for the power browser,” says Jeff Beard, legal services information technology manager with Nashville, Tenn.-based Caterpillar Inc. He says he switched to Maxthon more than a year and a half ago. “If you like more bells and whistles, it has all the functionality you could want right out of the box.”
Netscape is still around, with the latest release being Netscape 7.2. It is the same browser you may have used before, but America Online owns it now, so when you download the software, it will goad you into signing up for services like AOL’s instant messaging.
Installing each browser only takes a couple of minutes and doesn’t require a reboot. The installation software for Firefox, Maxthon and Avant automatically copies settings and files like the history, options, cookies, stored passwords and bookmarked Web sites from Internet Explorer. However, they all automatically alphabetize bookmark files, which is a minor nuisance.
Switching browsers is a relatively minor matter, which is why security experts say it’s a good time to make a change. “Lawyers, of all people, need to protect sensitive documents,” Faulkner says, “which is why it makes sense to switch to something like Firefox.”