SECURITY

World of Web Browsers: Are Alternatives Safer?

Some alternative Web browsers -- such as Apple's Safari, highly adaptable Opera, and the wildly popular Mozilla Firefox -- have more desirable features than Microsoft Internet Explorer. But are they more secure?
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Some Microsoft users have found recently that upgrading to the software maker's latest version of its popular Web browser Internet Explorer 7 (IE7) can be an extremely frustrating experience. In fact, one of the most common complaints is that that the product has features that "nag" the user.

“IE7 works, but it has way too much in the way of security notifications that aren't actually doing anything but bugging the user,” says Peri Naccarato, computer technician and owner of The Computer Guys in Saugerties, N.Y.  “In my opinion Mozilla Firefox 3.0 is far better at protecting you, and doesn't annoy with the kind of constant pop-ups IE does.”

For more than the last decade, Microsoft has had a death grip on the browser market, with more than 85 percent of computer owners using IE. In fact, in 2000, as part of a federal court's finding that Microsoft used monopolistic practices to maintain a hold over the computer operating system software market, the court also found the software giant attempted to monopolize the Web browser market.

But times have changed. A variety of new browsers are giving business Web users new choices in Web browsing. Many of these browsers put additional functionality into your browser, including e-mail, chat, photo sharing, and more. And despite the new security features in IE7, there are many who contend that the alternatives may provide higher levels of security -- one reason, of course, being that they aren't targeted by hackers as much as Microsoft's market-dominant IE.

“I'm a multiple browser user, depending on what I want to do,” says Michael Belfiore, tech writer and author of the book Rocketeers (Smithsonian Press, 2007). “The only thing I use IE for is watching Netflix Instant Viewing films, which requires IE.” Belfiore says that on a PC, he tends to use the Opera browser for large file downloads because it has BitTorrent, a file-sharing communications tool, built in. He also uses Firefox for research "because of the multiple search engines it has incorporated into the interface. On the Mac I use Safari, which is getting a lot of development from Apple right now.”

History of the browser war

The first widely used World Wide Web browser came along in 1992, in the form of Mosaic, the great-grandparent of many of today's browsers, including Mozilla and all its derivatives. Mosaic, developed in the academic environment, was the first browser to actually implement images embedded in the text, rather than displaying them in a separate window. Some of the Mosaic programmers went on to develop the first commercial Web browser at a company called Netscape. The Netscape Navigator browser was the most popular browser until Microsoft started incorporating its own browser, IE, into it's market-dominant Windows operating system software in the late 1990s.

Since then, of course, Internet browsers have grown to become one of the most necessary tools for anyone using the Web, and if you use Web-based e-mail, possibly the only tool used. Despite being overshadowed by IE, alternative Web browsers are finally making it less a Microsoft-dominated world of browsers.

While some are specific to certain computer operating systems, there are a few browsers that cross all boundaries. The primary alternatives to IE across all platforms are Mozilla Firefox and Opera, with Apple's Safari this past year bringing its particular brand of browser to Windows as well as Macs.

After Microsoft, Firefox appears to be the obvious leader, but Opera has been making some big strides recently. Opera has just formed a partnership with Haute Secure, a security vendor founded in 2006, to protect users from rogue sites known for drive-by malware and malicious links. This two-pronged approach takes browser security a step even further than Mozilla Firefox, which protect against malware but not malicious links. Haute Secure's protection is incorporated into Opera's version 9.5, currently available as a beta release.

There are quite a few other choices in the world of browsers, and the differences can be a bit confusing. So if you've been tempted to switch your business off of IE but haven't been too sure where to start, here's a list of the most popular currently available mainstream browsers.

Browser alternatives

  • Mozilla Firefox was designed for simplicity, security, and extensibility, with hundreds of extensions available. Originally branched from Netscape Communicator, Mozilla Application Suite was an all-in-one software that included Web, e-mail, IRC chat, and HTML editor. Mozilla later developed each of these into separate individual applications. The Mozilla Thunderbird mail and news client is an alternative to Microsoft Outlook Express. The HTML editor became Nvu, a stand-alone website builder that's growing a large following of its own, and the IRC chat feature became Chatzilla, a downloadable add-on to Firefox. All applications are open-source, and versions exist for Windows, Linux, and Mac. Features: Web, RSS headlines, e-mail and full RSS via Thunderbird, extensions for chat, customization, etc., skinnable, phishing filter.
  • Opera is a full-fledged Internet suite with Web, e-mail, news (usenet and RSS) and chat, with a wealth of other features available. Recently, Opera added better security in its latest version 9.5 to protect users from malware and malicious links. Due to the fact that Opera runs leaner on less memory, it is often the best choice if you have older machine. Versions for Windows, Linux, and Mac. Features: Web, e-mail, RSS, chat, skinnable, phishing filter, widgets, BitTorrent.
  • Apple Safari is designed for elegance and speed, and is now the default browser on the Mac. Starting with version 3 (currently in beta), Safari is also available for Windows. Features: Web, RSS.
  • Mozilla Seamonkey is an all-in-one Internet suite that grew from the original Mozilla Application Suite, including browser, e-mail/newsgroups client, address book, and an HTML editor, with many of the features that have since made Mozilla Firefox and Thunderbird popular. Essentially, Seamonkey can be considered the next generation of the Mozilla Application Suite. Versions for Windows, Linux, and Mac. Features: Web, e-mail, chat, HTML editor.
  • Flock is a “social browser” built on a Firefox core that integrates with Web services for blogging, photo sharing, and bookmark sharing. Flock supports bookmarks sharing in del.icio.us, webmail integration with Gmail and Yahoo!, and integrates with photo services Flickr, Picasa, and Photobucket. Blogging services it supports include Blogger, TypePad, WordPress and many others, and also integrates with social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Versions for Windows, Linux and Mac. Features: Web, blogging, photo sharing, social networks, favorites sharing, RSS reader, skinnable, compatible with many Firefox extensions

In addition to Firefox and SeaMonkey, Mozilla's “Gecko” engine is the basis for a number of platform-specific browsers, including K-Meleon for Windows, Camino for Macintosh, and Galeon and Epiphany for Linux.

Last updated: Jul 1, 2008




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