Digital World: The browser counterrevolution

Like every other red-blooded computer-savvy slightly anti-disestablishmentarian rebel, I switched from the “home” browser to Firefox years ago.

Like every other red-blooded computer-savvy slightly anti-disestablishmentarian rebel, I switched from the “home” browser to Firefox years ago. The little nonprofit that could, the Mozilla Foundation, was supposed to be our computer generation’s answer to the big corporate behemoths, Apple and Microsoft. Switching to Mozilla’s Firefox browser from Mac’s Safari or Windows’ Internet Explorer was supposed to help us identify with the little guy, the “real people,” the people on the barricades fighting “the man.”
I’m sorry to go all ’60s on you, but that was the feeling during the heady days of the Firefox rebellion, for lack of a better term. But like all revolutions, this one seems to have petered out, and the establishment – both MS and Apple – have been quietly making improvements, to the extent that many users are rediscovering their browser roots, using the built-in applications in their operating systems.
That, combined with what has become a plethora of add-ons – many of which are totally unnecessary, but which you can’t help installing anyway – has made FF much harder to manage, at least for me. Is Firefox crashing (at least once every couple of days now) because I keep 30 or so tabs open during my sessions? But shouldn’t 4 GB of memory be enough for what, for me, is “normal use?”
I haven’t made the switch away from Firefox yet, and I may not; I have to say I’m hooked on some of FF’s add-ons that I haven’t seen yet in Internet Explorer 8. But after a recent spate of FF crashes, I decided to check out the alternative – and I was surprised by the advances made by Internet Explorer, now in its eighth iteration.
For example: IE8 now has accelerators, which let you highlight text on a Web page and then further explore information on that topic from a variety of Web sources. You could highlight a name and search for it on Linkedin, Facebook and other social-media services, click on a domain name and get information about Alexa, search for a product at Walmart or Amazon, etc. It mimics – actually surpasses – one of the features I find most useful in FF, where I have an add-on that lets me highlight and right-click on highlighted text and search for it in Google.
But with IE8 accelerators, I have many more search options than just Google. You know the tables have turned when you find a Firefox extension called IE8 Activities (, which, according to the page, is “an implementation of IE8 Activities (now called Accelerators) for Firefox.”
IE8 also comes with something called Web Slices, which allow you to check information on a page – just the information you’re interested in – from the toolbar. If a Web Slice is available on a page, a green Web Slices icon will appear in the Command Bar. Click on the icon to easily subscribe and add the Web Slices to the Favorites Bar so you can keep track of that “slice” of the Web.
Here, too, FF is playing catch-up; suggestsinstalling a Firefox add-on called Webchunks to allow FF users to haveaccess to IE8 slices. “All of the web slices available there work justgreat in Firefox,” the page says – but “keep in mind that some may looka little ugly, due in part to them being created for IE!”
Note, by the way, that big bad corporate Microsoft has donated thespecifications of Web Slices to the public domain under the CreativeCommons Public Domain Dedication.
Other very nice implementations of important features in IE8 includeSmartscreen, which warns you when you surf to dangerous pages (andwhich consistently gets top reviews in the anti-phishing andanti-malware categories); tab isolation, which dumps a bad tab, insteadof crashing the whole browser when something bad happens; and enhancedprivacy capabilities, using InPrivate Browsing. You can get similarfunctionality for all these features using Firefox add-ons, by the way.
Which is exactly the point. Besides a revolutionary spirit, many people(including myself) moved to FF years ago because it just had a betterfeature set due to the available add-ons. But, as many FF users havelearned, add-ons have their price, in increased memory use and eventualinstability, leading to crashes.
IE8 has built many of their new features directly into the browsercode, which should lead to more stability. One could assume that thepeople who developed the browser would ensure that whatever featureswere built into it would be compatible with other features, while athird party writing an add-on might not be aware of all the secrets andbugs under the hood, even if the browser is open source. So you get thesame (or better) functionality in IE8 – with better stability and fewercrashes.
If that sounds like an argument for corporatism (IE8 is certainly notopen source), I would remind you that Firefox is now developed andmarketed not by the Mozilla Foundation, but the Mozilla Corporation.And while we wouldn’t deign to compare Microsoft’s corporate culturewith Mozilla’s (you have to believe things are freer and easier atMozilla), one has to assume that any corporation is going to havebenchmarks, managers, office politics, quarterly goals and pink slips.Like The Who sang, “Meet the new boss – same as the old boss.” Thebrowser revolution is truly over, it seems.