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    Web browser battles are back on the boil

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver  November 7-13, 2006; issue 889

    High Tech Office column; 

    It’s beginning to feel like browser wars all over again.

    In case you missed them, the original browser wars took place in the late 1990s, when Microsoft, upon discovering it had missed out on the first phase of the Internet explosion, took on then-reigning Web browser champion Netscape with Internet Explorer.

    Microsoft distributed IE free, unlike Netscape, distributed it widely as part of Windows, and arguably made it the better browser. The result: Internet Explorer achieved more than 90 per cent of browser-share, while Netscape (now owned by AOL) has a user base hovering around two per cent.

    But with no perceived threat, Microsoft stopped improving its browser. IE6 was released in 2002, and, other than releasing a seemingly never-ending string of security patches, the company appeared for a long time to have fallen asleep.

    While several alternative browsers had dedicated fans, it took the 2004 release of Mozilla Firefox to wake up the sleeping giant.

    Firefox offers features like tabs, allowing a user to tidily keep multiple web pages open. It was also widely perceived as more secure than Internet Explorer. Firefox use has steadily grown, and is now estimated at somewhere over 10 per cent, while accounting for higher percentages of the visits to many more technically-oriented websites.

    The result: Microsoft has now released Internet Explorer 7.

    Like Firefox, it finally allows users to load multiple pages into tabs, using the same keyboard shortcut to create a new tab. And like Firefox, there’s a built-in search field, which can be easily set to the user’s choice of search engines.

    Other nice features: a phishing filter warns if a user goes to a site that is on a Microsoft hot-list or displays suspicious behaviour.

    And clicking on a web page’s orange RSS icon makes it easy to subscribe to these increasingly popular news feeds. Improved security makes it more difficult for Active X-powered “drive-by installations” of malicious software without the user’s knowledge and consent.

    Less to my liking: IE7’s updated user interface (like Microsoft’s upcoming Office 2007) lacks menus.

    Ironically, the same limitations of Active X controls that improve security may also make IE7 less compatible with some financial or commercial websites that formerly worked only with Internet Explorer.

    If you’re an XP SP2 user, however, expect IE7 to show up in Windows Update, and, depending on your settings, you may find your computer has automatically updated itself.

    A week after IE7’s release, the open-source folks at Mozilla released Firefox 2.0, that browser’s major update.

    With Microsoft playing catch-up to Firefox, Mozilla focused on less dramatic changes to its browser. The new version is a bit sleeker, faster and more stable but looks pretty much like the previous version.

    Like IE7, it warns when you visit a known phishing website (though Firefox refers to such hazards as “suspected web forgery”).

    While IE7 works only for users of recent (and reasonably up-to-date) Windows versions, Firefox includes versions for Mac OS X and Linux, and supports all versions of Windows from Win98 on.

    It’s nice to see Microsoft getting serious again about improving its web browser (and company representatives have started talking about what to expect in a not-yet-announced IE8), but overall, Firefox remains a better tool for browsing the web.

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