John over at theMouthPiece.com has asked me to write an article about web browsers. Apparently he seems to think that I know a thing or two about such things, so I figured I might as well write something up. Maybe I’ll prove my ignorance.
So, what is a web browser?
Many people just click on the little “e” icon on their desktop to launch the internet and don’t think for one minute that they’re using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, a program designed to display web pages. Google has links to web pages that define what a Web Browser is, but in essence it’s just another program that you run so that you can see and read internet pages.
What many people don’t realise is that there are quite a few browsers out there other than Internet Explorer. You don’t actually need to use the one that Microsoft gives you with Windows, you can install and run any number of these other browsers, many of which give you a more convenient way of surfing the web.
OK, so let’s have a look at Internet Explorer. This is the old warhorse of browsers, developed by Microsoft over the years to be integrated into the Windows environment and to give the Windows user the best possible internet experience. It took on the dominant browser of the time, Netscape and beat it into second place by some margin.
These days, Internet Explorer (IE) usage is falling in popularity, as you can see from the browser stats page at the W3 schools site. A very healthy 76% of web users are using Internet Explorer (either version 6 or 5.x) compared to around 90% of all internet users at the peak of their dominance of the market. [Bear in mind, though, that this site probably sees a greater number of visitors of a "geeky" nature, and thus perhaps more likely to use the alternate browsers. The percentages reflect the browsers used by visitors to that site, not the internet as a whole]
Perhaps the fall in popularity of IE is down to the lack of development in the browser by Microsoft over recent years. It hasn’t changed or evolved since IE6 first came out in 2001, and web users are wanting more and more features in their browsers, features that IE doesn’t give them.
Windows, and Internet Explorer, have had a number of security issues over the years and IE has a reputation of being inherently less secure than some of it’s rivals. Perhaps this aspect has been over-egged by the competition, but Secunia.com rate Internet Explorer to have 60 advisories (some of which are fixed in XP Service pack 2) but that there are still some unfixed issues that are considered to be critical.
This might mean little to the average web user, but web security is a real issue that affects all web users. If you want to be secure on the web then you need your browser to be as secure as it can be too, and as far as I can see IE is behind the pack with the security fixes.
IE is also lacking in features, especially the wonderful invention of “tabbed” browsing. If your desktop gets covered in windows when on a busy trawl through the internet, then tabbed browsing is a fantastic way of organising the web pages that you want to view. All web pages are contained within one window and are “tabbed” for easy access. You can even open web pages “in the background” so that you can read them once you’ve finished with your present page – this can save a lot of time waiting for pages to download if you’re on dial-up.
So, what are these other browsers then? Well, there are a whole bunch of browsers that use tabs, but the main contendors are the IE-driven Avant and Maxthon, plus the open-source Mozilla (including little brother Firefox) and the old favourite Opera. Netscape, while still downloadable, is now dead in the water and not being developed any more.
Avant and Maxthon are similar beasts, each giving a whole bunch of features that IE does not (by default) and enhancing the web surfer’s experience greatly. As both use the IE engine (they’re essentially just a new, improved user interface for IE) they’re still open to the same security concerns of Microsoft product. This isn’t so much of a problem as long as you regularly run Windows Update and make sure that you install all the latest security patches.
Mozilla, and Firefox, are among a family of products that have risen from the ashes of the Netscape project. Netscape (or Nutscrape as it was affectionately known) used the open-source Gecko engine for it’s browser, and Mozilla has continued this usage. It’s a fully-featured web browser that can do almost anything you can imagine on the internet. It’s latest offshoot, Firefox, is a leaner, meaner browser that cuts off some of the fat from the interface leaving the user with faster, more efficient surfing experience. It’s not as heavily featured as Mozilla, but that’s deliberate, making it the browser of choice for many people, including me.
Opera has been around since 1996 (although it’s been in development for much longer that that) and it’s always suffered from a distinct lack of success, despite being an excellent browser. It’s very powerful and hsa always been at the cutting edge of browser technology – Opera has often been the first browser to implement certain features, such as the tabs, and has the ability to remember what page you were looking at at any given point, so if you close the window by accident (or it crashes) you can start again from the same place.
The free version of Opera is funded by adverts, but these are not particularly obtrusive. If you want to get rid of the adverts you have to pay about $39. Definately worth trying out.
There are a number of other browsers out there too, some of which aren’t designed for Windows users. Alternative operating systems, such as Linux, often have their own default browsers (such as Konqueror or Galeon among others) or Safari for Macs, but I don’t intend covering those here. Opera, Mozilla and Firefox also have versions for Linux and Mac OS X, so you can try these out on pretty much any box.
So, which one should you use? Well, why not give them all a try? They’re all free or have free versions. If you’ve used IE for a long time it’ll take a while to get used to the new interfaces of the alternate, but I think you’ll find that perhaps Internet Explorer isn’t often the best browser around.
There can be issues with alternate browsers. Internet standards (as set by the W3C) can be a adhered to in slightly different ways by each browser so some websites may look different from one browser to the next or may not work at all. Internet Explorer seems to be better at displaying poorly designed sites than, say, Firefox which has a reputation for sticking more rigidly to the standards.
Also some web designers seem to think that they should design only for Internet Explorer, and as Microsoft has deemed to incorporate some proprietry features into it’s browser (ie stuff not covered by the W3C standards such as Frontpage Extensions) they design with this in mind, thus making sure that their sites look terrible in other browsers. This effect has lessened over the years thankfully.
So, give one of these other browsers a go and see what you think. You might like them, or not. I might give a closer review of other browsers at some later point if people are interested – there are plenty of other reviews already online so give Google a whirl to find those.