Sunday, October 03, 2004

Browser redux

About a year ago I noted that there were some powerful new browsers in the wings, and I wondered aloud how the new developments would impact our friends in Redmond.

I want to revisit that column by looking at four competitive browsers: Netscape, Mozilla, Firefox and Opera.

Opera

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have become a major fan of the Opera browser. This Norwegian browser is tightly integrated, fast, and a major competitive threat to Microsoft – but lacks name recognition in the U.S. It is the leading browser for mobile telephones, with more than 1 million downloads. The software is available on Windows, Linux, Mac OS, Symbian OS, Windows Mobile, BREW, QNX, TRON, FreeBSD, Solaris and Mediahighway – putting it far ahead of many competitors.

Netscape

Now at Release 7.2, this browser should be renamed Phoenix, because it has truly risen from the ashes, and is worth serious consideration from anyone interested in a Microsoft alternative. I remember way back when (in the covered wagon days along the Oregon Trail), Netscape battled head-to-head with Microsoft in the browser arena. It had a great product, but shot itself in the foot when it began pushing buggy releases out the door in an effort to keep up with Microsoft (which was able to dedicate massive programming resources to its browser effort). The Netscape browser has a number of compelling features such as tabbed browsing, one button publishing, and a nifty ability to let users right click on a word on a page and automatically launch a web search based on that word. Now how cool is that?

Firefox

This little browser is sweet. Whenever I set up a system for a friend, I make sure and put a copy of this browser on the desktop. It features popup blocking, tabbed browsing, great privacy and security (it does not load ActiveX controls like certain other browsers), Google Search is built right into the toolbar, and RSS integration. While I still love my Opera, I think I have a crush on Firefox.

Mozilla

This is a very feature-rich product that supports tabbed browsing and the use of themes to customize the look and feel. I like to think of it as an older sibling to Firefox. It includes full mail and newsgroup support, it blocks popups and offensive images; it includes a full web page editor and a nice set of junk mail controls. Mozilla's software is open source software that is licensed to end users under the terms of the Mozilla Public License (found at http://www.mozilla.org/MPL/MPL-1.1.html ). This license allows users to modify and distribute Mozilla code free of charge and without obtaining permission from the Mozilla Foundation. Naturally, there are some restrictions, but they are not onerous.

So I have just described four really competitive browsers to Internet Exploder, oops, I mean Internet Explorer. (Please no more e-mail mail asking why we can’t all just get along.) The new features they bring are quite powerful, and compelling. None are really household names, and Microsoft probably has 90% of the Wintel desktop browser market under control. Still, with these four leading a vanguard of dozens of other browsers, Microsoft may be facing a sea-change in browser market dynamics.

The sea change is being led by features. For example:

  • Tabbed browsing means that you have a single instance of the browser open, with multiple tabs representing each website that is open. This is great because it mean less code is running on your machine, which usually equates to better overall performance. Imagine that! Six websites open without six instances of the program running, and waits of two minutes or more while your screen refreshes between tabs.
  • Skins and themes let you have complete control over the buttons, toolbars, and look and feel of the browser. From conservative to extreme, the choice is yours, and you get to pick themes and skins from a global community of users who contribute them to the common good. Some of the looks are absolutely incredible, some are unnecessarily complex, some are beautiful, others horrid. But that is the great thing about it, you can choose, you are in control -- some industrial design team in Redmond doesn’t decide what your browser looks like.
  • All of these browsers offer real end user security and privacy tools that help prevent everyone in the universe from learning your browsing habits. Cookies can be managed with you in mind, dangerous scripts and controls can be blocked, users can even set parameters for image downloads.
  • RSS integration means that if you have bookmarked websites that use Really Simple Syndication (an XML format designed for sharing headlines and other Web content) your browser will know when the content of the websites change – without you having to brows there. This is particularly useful for news- or sports-type websites. But other types of sites are also using this technology. A great explanation of the technology and its uses can be found at: http://www.xml.com/pub/a/2002/12/18/dive-into-xml.html . Enjoy and go search out those RSS websites.

Beyond these four browsers are a dozen or so less visible efforts. Microsoft may have the market wrapped up, but the natives are restless. Microsoft contributes to this by ignoring end user needs and only adding major browser features that they believe will strengthen their hold on the browser market. And that is a shame.

It is interesting to see my desktop. I have all five browsers available. The love of my life is still Opera, followed by Firefox, Mozilla, Netscape and Microsoft. I’ll go weeks at a time with never opening MSDIE. Usually the only time I’ll willingly use it is under two distinctly different set of circumstances:

  • When using http://support.microsoft.com/ one pretty well has to use MSIE, and Microsoft spends a lot of time tweaking their code to make sure that the pages do not render well with any other browser technology. It is nearly impossible to browse that site with Opera, and difficult with the other browsers. That behavior gives me nice, warm feelings about Microsoft.
  • In my work with the Open Directory Project (http://dmoz.org) I often run across websites where the idiot-savant webmaster has decided to make his or her website totally lockstep with Microsoft’s non-standard standards, so that non-Microsoft browsers don’t work well. How dumb is that? You put together a website to support your business, and then you intentionally lock out a certain percentage of potential customers because they don’t use the right browser? That might make sense if you made money based on the user’s browser – but other than that, it makes no sense at all.

Remember, you have choices out there.

Download information:

Readers can download Opera 7.5 at http://www.opera.com/download/

Readers can download Netscape 7.2 at http://channels.netscape.com/ns/browsers/download.jsp

Readers can download the preview release of Firefox at http://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/0.10.1/Firefox%20Setup%201.0PR.exe

Readers can download Mozilla Release 1.7 at http://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/mozilla/releases/mozilla1.7.3/mozilla-win32-1.7.3-installer.exe

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