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    Firefox rolls out more heavy artillery in new browser wars

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2008 First published in Business in Vancouver August 12-18, 2008; issue 981

    High Tech Office column

    A decade or so ago, web browser development was hot and heavy, with a new version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator seemingly released every month or so.

    After beating Netscape, though, Microsoft seemed to go to sleep and abandoned browser development for six years. Netscape’s code was turned over to the open source Mozilla Foundation, which used it to help develop the Firefox browser. Gaining over 20% browser share in Canada (and over 50% share in some European countries), Firefox’s growing popularity rekindled the browser wars.

    Forced to play catch-up to Firefox, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 7, and
    recently began a quiet public beta program for a next-generation IE 8, promising
    improved security and compliance with web standards – ironically causing problems
    for financial and other websites designed to work with earlier IE versions.
    Minority-taste browser Opera released a new version in June. Version 9.5 offers
    increased speed, protection from online malware and phishing websites, and the
    ability to sync bookmarks between desktop and mobile phone versions.

    And Apple, after being criticized by Windows users for sneaking in its Safari
    browser along with iTunes music player updates, improved that browser’s speed
    and performance and fixed a major security hole in Safari’s Windows version.
    Bigger news, though, is the latest version of Firefox (3.0). Its eight million
    downloads within 24 hours of release set a Guinness-certifiable world record. First
    glance reveals a slightly updated user interface, but a host of more subtle changes
    promising a faster, smoother and more intuitive browsing experience.

    With versions for Windows (2000 and later), Mac OS X and Linux, Firefox 3 loads
    pages faster. It also requires less system resources than previous versions and
    fixes the memory of older versions. (Note: it still takes longer to start up than
    Internet Explorer, though after that it’s faster overall.)

    Its most changed feature, though, is that old standby, the address bar. Every
    browser has a space near the top where users type the web address. More recent
    browsers offer auto-complete: start to type, and your browser may
    display similar web addresses that you went to previously. Firefox 3’s address bar
    is smarter; fans have taken to calling it the Awesome Bar. Besides typing in a web
    address, you can just type in a few words describing what you want. You will then
    see a list of potential choices based on your browsing history. If there’s one
    obvious destination, you will be taken right there. Awesome!

    Downloads can be paused and resumed later, even if you’ve closed and restarted
    Firefox in the meantime. Viruses are checked automatically.

    As with previous versions of Firefox, the browser’s look and capabilities can be
    altered with downloadable themes and add-ons. Note that add-ons for earlier
    Firefox versions may require updating to work with the new version. If you rely on
    a given add-on, make sure it’s compatible before upgrading to Firefox 3.

    Webmail users can set Firefox to point e-mail links to a webmail account. Using a
    blacklist compiled by Google, Firefox 3 blocks access not only to phishing sites (as
    do both Firefox 2 and IE 7), but it also blocks sites known to distribute viruses and
    spyware. Clicking on the small “favicon” icon that appears to the left in the address
    bar provides information about a website’s identity – useful if you have suspicions
    about a site’s validity.

    Many recent security attacks have been aimed at web browsers. According to mid-
    June data, these have been able to succeed because roughly 40% of users are
    operating online with older, less secure browser versions. Users who’ve opted for
    an alternative browser are most likely to keep it up to date: 92% of Firefox and
    90% of Opera users were running the latest version of their chosen browser,
    compared with 70% of Apple Safari users and only 52% of Internet Explorer users.
    You wouldn’t want to be caught using a stale-dated (and less secure) browser
    version online, would you? •

Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan
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