Browser Wars


By: James Hannon, Atomic PR

In the mid-nineties the Browser Wars involved Netscape versus Microsoft. At stake was control over the nature of the Web's underpinnings and user experience, with wide distribution and public use as the measure of relative success.

Netscape had an early lead due to rapid development and innovative extension of the Web standards, which continually expanded the scope of what was possible for everyone. But Microsoft quickly saw the threat that an operating-system-agnostic browser posed, and anticipated the software revenues browser-based applications would create for competitors. The company set out to head off that future and launched Internet Explorer as a component of Windows 95. Microsoft won that war.

From a browsing perspective, the Web hasn't really changed much since then, aside from the security problems that have plagued IE. IE is a relatively insecure browser tied to an insecure operating system, it has enjoyed 95% of the market share at the height of its popularity, and cannot be removed. Therefore, it has proven to be a rich target for malicious hackers and identity thieves.

In the meantime, a new breed of browsers has appeared. Most of them have aimed to lessen the security flaws of IE, but they have also mainly been built to work on Macs, PCs, Linux systems and portable devices like mobile phones and handhelds. Most are free, easy to install, require almost no end-user support. And, unlike IE, they are just as easy to uninstall if you don't like them.

These new browser entrants often come equipped with features like ad, cookie and popup blockers which can help preserve network bandwidth and speed, as well as add-on tools to make the Web more useful. Because most do not support Microsoft-specific 'features' like ActiveX, they do not suffer from the same kinds of vulnerabilities as Internet Explorer and are less likely to give outsiders access to your network and important data.

The group of new browsers may not change the way web sites look, but they may display them faster, give employees more useful features to make work easier, allow for more customization and control, and provide better tools to protect privacy and security.

Here's a rundown on a couple of the most popular alternatives to Internet Explorer, and where you can go to try them out:

Mozilla Firefox -- Mozilla Firefox is the latest stand-alone open source browser from the Mozilla project, built and tested by volunteers. The download size is 4.7Mb and it's available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. It has a very stable, very fast rendering engine, and includes popup blocking, tabbed browsing, privacy and security tools, popular search engines built into the toolbar, integrated RSS live bookmarks for quick news scanning, and accessibility tools like text zoom. It also has a very large and active community dedicated to creating useful add-ons and themes that can be installed right from the site. Firefox has won countless awards and accolades, is an excellent tool for business use, and is currently one of the fastest growing browsers on the Net.

Opera -- Opera Software, based in Norway, is currently shipping version 8 of its browser for Windows. Opera has developed versions for the Mac, Linux, FreeBSD, Solaris, OS2, QNX, mobile devices, and other systems. The download file size is 3.5Mb, and includes session recall, tabbed browsing, popup blocking, built-in search, mouse gesture navigation, accessibility tools, and an integrated mail client. Opera also has a large support community, fan sites, and add-ons, and has received many industry awards over the years.

Netscape is still kicking around, although it has mainly become a cross-property marketing vehicle for AOL these days. There are other alternative browsers such as Avant and Maxthon which are based on Internet Explorer's codebase, but extend the features, controls, and security protections far beyond IE's defaults.

Alternative browsers are no longer an underground movement; even the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team (US-CERT), a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has recommended that Internet users switch to a browser other than Internet Explorer because of the security issues with IE.

That's not to say that other browsers are free from software bugs - they aren't. But because the code is open to examination by the public during and after release, bugs are typically discovered and fixed more quickly and openly. Since the alternative browsers are treated as an application rather than a component of the operating system, they adhere to open Internet standards of operation, and proprietary languages like ActiveX are often not supported, the kinds of vulnerabilities which do appear tend to be less potentially harmful.

In a perfect world, there would be no dominant browser but instead, a collection of different browsers that thrive and that people are free to pick and choose from, all based on the original promise of the Web: open, standardized access to information, independent of the computer or software used.


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