December 30, 2004
By WALTER S. MOSSBERG
Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser is one of the most important, and most often used, programs on the world's personal computers, relied upon by more than 90% of Windows users. But Microsoft hasn't made any important functional improvements in Internet Explorer for years.
The software giant has folded IE into the Windows operating system, and the browser only receives updates as part of the "Windows update" process. In recent years, most upgrades to IE have been under-the-hood patches to plug the many security holes that have made IE a major conduit for hackers, virus writers and spyware purveyors. The only visible feature added to IE recently: a pop-up ad blocker, which arrived long after other browsers had one.
Meanwhile, other people have been building much better browsers, just as Microsoft itself did in the 1990s, when it challenged and eventually bested the then-dominant browser, Netscape Navigator. The most significant of these challengers is Firefox, a free product of an open-source organization called Mozilla, available for download at www.mozilla.org. Firefox is both more secure and more modern than IE, and it comes packed with user-friendly features the Microsoft browser can't touch.
Firefox still has a tiny market share. But millions of people have downloaded it recently. I've been using it for months, and I recommended back in September that users switch to it from IE as a security measure. It's available in nearly identical versions for Windows, the Apple Macintosh, and the Linux operating system.
There are some other browsers that put IE to shame. Apple's elegant Safari browser, included free on every Mac, is one. But it isn't available for Windows. The Opera browser is loaded with bells and whistles, but I find it pretty complicated. And NetCaptor, my former favorite, is very nice. But since it's based on the IE Web-browsing engine, it's vulnerable to most of IE's security problems.
Firefox, which uses a different underlying browsing engine called "Gecko," also has a couple of close cousins based on the same engine. One is Netscape, now owned by America Online. The other is a browser called Mozilla, from the same group that created Firefox. But Firefox is smaller, sleeker and newer than either of its relatives, although a new Netscape version is in the works.
Firefox isn't totally secure -- no browser can be, especially if it runs on Windows, which has major security problems and is the world's top digital target. But Firefox has better security and privacy than IE. One big reason is that it won't run programs called "ActiveX controls," a Microsoft technology used in IE. These programs are used for many good things, but they have become such powerful tools for criminals and hackers that their potential for harm outweighs their benefits.
Firefox also has easier, quicker and clearer methods than IE does for covering your online tracks, if you so choose. And it has a better built-in pop-up ad blocker than IE.
But my favorite aspect of Firefox is tabbed browsing, a Web-surfing revolution that is shared by all the major new browsers but is absent from IE. With tabbed browsing, you can open many Web pages at once in the same browser window. Each is accessed by a tab.
The benefits of tabbed browsing hit home when you create folders of related bookmarks. For instance, on my computer I have a folder of a dozen technology-news bookmarks and another 20 or so bookmarks pointing to political Web sites. A third folder contains 15 or so bookmarks for sites devoted to the World Champion Boston Red Sox. With one click, I can open the entire contents of these folders in tabs, in the same single window, allowing me to survey entire fields of interest.
And Firefox can recognize and use Web sites that employ a new technology called "RSS" to create and update summaries of their contents. When Firefox encounters an RSS site, it displays a special icon that allows you to create a "live" bookmark to the site. These bookmarks then display updated headlines of stories on the sites.
Firefox also includes a permanent, handy search box that can be used to type in searches on Google, Yahoo, Amazon or other search sites without installing a special toolbar.
And it has a cool feature called "Extensions." These are small add-on modules, easy to download and install, that give the browser new features. Among the extensions I use are one that automatically fills out forms and another that tests the speed of my Web connection. You can also download "themes," which change the browser's looks.
There is only one significant downside to Firefox. Some Web sites, especially financial ones, have chosen to tailor themselves specifically for Internet Explorer. They rely on features only present in IE, and either won't work or work poorly in Firefox and other browsers.
Luckily, even if you switch to Firefox, you can still keep IE around to view just these incompatible sites. (In fact, Microsoft makes it impossible to fully uninstall IE.) There's even an extension for Firefox that adds an option called "View This Page in IE."
So Firefox is my current choice of a Windows Web browser. It is to IE in 2004 what IE was to Netscape in 1996 -- the upstart that does a better job.
Write to Walter S. Mossberg at firstname.lastname@example.org