Inertia is a powerful force, even in the personal productivity software marketplace. That may explain why Internet Explorer (IE) remains the dominant web browser, in spite of the existence of alternatives with superior features and performance. My favourite is Firefox, the open source browser launched a year ago by the Mozilla Foundation (www.mozilla.com).
Since then, Firefox 1.0 has been downloaded loom times and has garnered a little less than 10 per cent of the browser market -- a creditable performance given that Microsoft's IE comes bundled with many new PCs and most corporate information technology (IT) departments are particularly cautious when it comes to change.
Recently Firefox 1.5 was launched after an extensive beta (trial) so I decided to take a closer look at it and some other alternatives, including Netscape 8 (http://browser.netscape.com) and Opera 8.0 (www.opera.com).
In fact, with the launch of a new version of Internet Explorer (IE 7) slated for early next year, 2006 could see the start of a new browser war similar to the battle between Microsoft and Netscape in the 1990s.
IE 7 is expected to build on such innovations as tabbed windows and integrated RSS (Real Simple Syndication) newsreaders introduced by some of its rivals, improve its page rendering speed and address many security concerns.
One of the most notable things about the new Firefox 1.5 browser is that it does not look much different from version 1.0. It retains its clean, uncluttered interface and the distinctive tabbed pages accessible via a single-mouse click. Users can now drag and drop these tabs to reorder them easily, and web page navigation is notably faster. Other changes include improved pop-up ad blocking and close integration with both Google for search and Answers.com (www.answers.com) for reference book search.
Firefox 1.5 also features improved Live Bookmarks, making it easier to find and subscribe to RSS feeds and security has been beefed up.
Firefox's developers have resisted the temptation to weigh the browser down with masses of features that are rarely used. Instead, Firefox integrates the most-used technologies into the browser itself, while allowing users to add specific functionality through third-party extensions. (Developers have already created more than 700 extensions for Firefox, which add features such as weather data and automated form filling.) This approach has enabled Firefox to remain relatively slim: the basic code totals about 5Mb, a featherweight compared with a full copy of IE, for example.
I have also found Firefox 1.5 to be very solid and reliable -- even when it encounters a website optimised specifically for IE.
Netscape's new browser, Netscape 8.0, shares some of the same lineage as Firefox but is quite different in some respects. In addition to tabbed browsing, Netscape adds a Multibar feature that allows users to condense multiple toolbars into single buttons, reducing clutter and making it easy to build customised toolbars -- for example to display local information, share prices or favourite RSS feeds.
As with the Opera browser, users can set Netscape up to load a group of tabbed pages automatically at start-up. And, like Firefox and Opera, Netscape allows new users to import bookmarks, history and passwords from rival browsers. Also, Netscape can run in two rendering modes (which determines how web pages will be displayed): its native Gecko engine, which is the same as Firefox, or IE's rendering engine. If users encounter a problem page they can switch mode.
Netscape's designers have built sophisticated security choices into the browser, including unique site controls that allow users to decide just how-much they want to trust a particular website. Netscape also continuously updates the browser with a list of trusted and suspected sites, applies security settings and warns users.
Like Opera, Netscape 8.0 comes with built-in password and automated form-filling features similar to RoboForm (www.roboform.com), my favourite password manager, which also comes as a plug-in for Firefox.
Opera has staked out its claim in the battle of the browsers as being the fastest one available. Opera 8.0 continues this tradition with added features and security options. Like Firefox and Netscape, Opera is a free download, but it charges $30 for a year of premium support. Its developers have cleaned up the basic browser interface and Opera now claims to offer "the largest browsing area in the industry".
Opera pioneered the use of tabbed pages and integrated pop-up blocking several years ago. The latest version includes a slew of enhanced features, including password management, integrated search and advanced functions such as Opera's e-mail programme, RSS Newsfeeds and IRC chat.
I particularly like Opera's "fit to window width" feature that is designed to cut out the need for horizontal scrolling, making it easier to print entire web pages. In combination with Opera's Zoom function, this enables users to magnify web pages dramatically and still view them without having to scroll sideways.
Opera also claims to be the first browser to offer interactive, voice-enabled shopping and booking. Provided you have a headset with a microphone you can browse the web using spoken commands that prompt the software to read web content and e-mail messages to you. The voice feature is currently offered in English and works with Windows 2000 and XP.
If you do switch to Firefox or Opera, be prepared to encounter pages that may not load properly because much web content has been developed specifically for IE, which is tightly integrated with desktop software such as Word and Excel.
Unfortunately, there is relatively little information about the new features to be built into Internet Explorer 7.0 and as yet, no definite release date. But since it costs nothing to try out the alternatives, it may be time to give them a spin.
FT Syndication Service