Digital World: Browser wars redux

Tech-savvy readers may have heard that major upgrades of everyone's favorite Web browsers - Internet Explorer and Firefox - both came out this month.

By DAVID SHAMAH
October 31, 2006 07:41
firefox logo 88 298

firefox logo 88 298. (photo credit: )

You have to wonder what makes a company with 87 percent of the market on a product go out on a limb to "improve" things, making their product look as much as possible as the upstart competition. I'm glad that as a "power user" I have, in the new Internet Explorer 7, another Web browser I wouldn't hesitate to use on a regular basis - but I don't know how the masses of IE users are going to take to the changes. I do know, however, that Firefox users are going to yawn and keep on using their preferred "anti-establishment" browser. Tech-savvy readers may have heard that major upgrades of everyone's favorite Web browsers - Internet Explorer and Firefox - both came out this month. Actually, it's unlikely that Firefox users - who took the trouble to install the competing browser in the first place - are unaware of the upgrade from FF 1.5.1 to 2.0. But Internet Explorer users, who are less involved in tech doings than their Firefox brethren, may have missed news about the upgrade to IE7. They'll find out soon enough, though, as MS includes the final update of the newly released Internet Explorer 7 as part of Windows Updates, in a sort of "forced upgrade," due in a couple of weeks. It's clear that Microsoft worked very hard on this upgrade, adding many features that Firefox users have enjoyed for years - to the point where both programs now offer pretty much the same thing. The biggest change awaiting IE users is tabbed browsing, long a part of FF's bag of tricks. Instead of opening a new window to surf multiple sites, as Internet Explorer 6.x users did, new sites can be opened in a tab in the same IE7 window. Lots of people find this system of switching between loaded sites more convenient, and tabbing has become a cause celebre among dissatisfied IE users. But convenience is where it begins and ends for tabs. Many of those who switched from IE to FF way back when expected to see improvements in memory usage because, of course, one window - even loaded with tabs - will take up less memory than multiple windows. Needless to say, as FF users subsequently discovered, it didn't work out that way. There is a potential memory saving in the new version of Firefox, however, because some of the cool things FF could do in its previous versions via add-on extensions are now part of the program itself. For example, I had been using, in FF 1.5.1, an extension that allowed me to reopen a tab that I accidentally closed. That extension's functionality is now built into the program, obviating the need for an extension (and of course, the more extensions, the more memory FF requires). Several other extensions are also no longer necessary for the same reason, while others don't work with the upgrade at all (although there is a workaround for this, at http://users.blueprintit.co.uk/~dave/web/firefox/nightly). So, the upgrade should theoretically have made Firefox less memory-intense than it had been, since I theoretically could work at the same level of efficiency without all those extra extensions. But because a big part of the fun of using Firefox is checking out new extensions, I just installed a new crop of FF 2.0 compatible extensions - so I'm back where I started, dealing with Firefox's by now legendary memory usage and leaks (http://kb.mozillazine.org/Memory-Leak). Not that Internet Explorer 6.x was a "memory saint" either, but now Microsoft, not wanting to be left out of the fun of increased functionality, has jumped onto the extensions bandwagon as well and there are now all sorts of add-ons to make IE more useful such as form fillers, bookmark managers, pop-up killers, etc. With IE7 only a couple of months old (including its beta version), relatively few add-ons are available for it right now, but if you come up with a winner, MS will feature it on the add-on download site (http://www.ieaddons.com), pay you $2500 and give you an all-expenses paid trip to a big-deal Las Vegas computer show if you come up with a really good one (http://msdn.microsoft.com/ie/addoncontest)! One important difference between IE and Firefox add-ons: A good number of the more sophisticated Internet Explorer add-ons cost money, and you can bet that corporate computing departments are going to be buying some of the offerings from Norton and Mcaffee, for example. It's hard to image Firefox users paying for any extensions. Among the major improvements touted by both, IE and FF also feature automatic "phishing" protection, to help you avoid surfing to sites intent on illicitly separating you from your money. When you surf to a suspicious site (the list comes from a number of Web sources, including Google, and is updated constantly), both IE and FF try to block access to the site. I actually preferred Firefox's version of the tool, because it lets you see what you're being prevented from linking to - while IE won't let you see the page at all. Considering that most phishing sites are accessed from e-mail that people have no business opening in the first place ("Your Paypal account has been suspended!"), browser phishing protection is a good thing to have around, but it shouldn't be considered a first line of defense. You can check out how well both filters work by clicking on one of the links at http://www.dslreports.com/phishtrack?pid=4905&urls. Firefox has offered built-in RSS support for a long time, and now Internet Explorer joins the RSS club. IE's built in RSS reader is pretty good but, as before, Firefox offers a choice of third-party programs for news feeds. In addition, FF also offers "live bookmarks," which, also as before, inform you when a non-RSS site gets updated. One feature I liked in IE7 was the Quick Tabs feature, which gives you a thumbnail view of all the tabs you have open at any time (FF has an extension to do this). And then there are the interface changes, quite extensive in IE7, with almost the entire top of the screen (menus, toolbars) undergoing a significant reorganization. Critics from the Mozilla side of the aisle have complained that without having issued a major upgrade for several years, Internet Explorer could have done more than produce a "Firefox clone," while IE advocates accused Firefox of ripping off some of IE's ideas, like changing the name of extensions to add-ons, just like IE7 (although to be fair, IE7 uses the control-T keyboard shortcut to open a new tab, just like FF). I don't know if Mozilla ad Microsoft timed the release of FF2 and IE7 to coincide, but there's no question that both do everything power users expect their browsers to do in this day and age. Now the opinion part: Firefox 2.0, which offers some improvements to a familiar interface, makes sense to me. But I don't quite get IE7. Who exactly is this program aimed at, if I may ask? Now, I know what you're thinking: Shamah's flipped! Everyone says that Internet Explorer has long needed a refurbishing and tabs are a great idea, as Firefox has proven. The computing public has been abandoning Internet Explorer for Firefox in recent years and, of course, Microsoft is concerned over losing market share (although they don't sell IE). Progress is good, and IE7 definitely shows progress on the part of Microsoft's browser. But judging from the e-mail I've gotten in response to columns over the years, most users aren't sophisticated enough to care about whether a browser uses tabs or not. Most home and office users know how to navigate Internet Explorer 6.x, based often on hours of training, and most would never even consider installing a "competing" browser. Most of the positive reviews of IE7 are being written from the point of view of computer professionals. How are the casual users going to handle it? I haven't seen any market research, but casual surveys around the office indicate that non-techie IE users like things just the way they are. Sure, they'll get used to the new interface; but I can't help but think that there's a bit of "geek jealousy" involved in the new design, with Microsoft somehow ashamed of Internet Explorer being thought less sophisticated than Firefox. The IE redesign certainly can't have anything to do with market share as Internet Explorer is still the browser of choice for the browsing public (http://tinyurl.com/yfgsjh). But maybe someone at Microsoft, well-read as he or she is in the computer press, can't stand the fact that Microsoft is "second best" in the browser wars. Which, if you think about it, is kind of silly since there are different products for different people, and nearly 90% of market share should be, one would think, a confirmation that the company is doing something right with IE6. Plus, it's not like hordes of Firefox users, many of whom have sworn off IE for ideological reasons - Microsoft is, after all, a Big Bad Corporation and Mozilla is an open-source foundation - are going to abandon Firefox en masse. Sure, IE has add-ons - but they're never going to be as elegant as Firefox's, because Microsoft will never open IE's code sufficiently to integrate them properly. IE add-ons are fated to be clumsy, and expect lots of crashes from "incorrectly implemented code," as Microsoft likes to put it - further distancing the power user community from the program. Programmers, of course, want their product to appear in a positive light and be "the best," but "best" is a relative term - and in the contest between IE7 and Firefox, what's best for MS programmers may not be best for the bulk of IE's natural audience - or the bottom line. [email protected]


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