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Try Using Alternative Browsers: Microsoft Dares You

By Jack M. Germain
Jan 1, 2005 1:30 AM PT

As security holes continue to multiply in Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser, consumers and enterprise users alike are paying more attention to alternative browsers. After all, Microsoft hasn't upgraded its starship software package since before the release of Windows XP.

Try Using Alternative Browsers: Microsoft Dares You

Numerous alternative browsers are now available to give Microsoft a run for the money. Microsoft's IE is free, but it comes with a cost. It is embedded in the operating system and can't be turned off. Leading contenders are either free or low cost and offer much better security and features.

So switching browsers should be as easy as downloading, installing and running. Warning: It doesn't work that way. There is more to switching browsers -- at least permanently -- than first meets the eyes.

Evaluator's Woes

I have discovered that Microsoft has a built-in booby-trap to discourage users from permanently adopting alternative browsers. It is the imbedded Internet Explorer coding that you cannot shut off.

Sure, you can designate another browser as the default browser. However, any function that touches on Microsoft's MSN Messenger, Hotmail account or e-mail clients will only view in Microsoft's IE, even when it is not the default browser.

There is an added glitch. When you click on a link in a newsletter or anything else in the IE-must-load-or-die hard wiring, the links don't access java. Java only works when IE is the default program. Microsoft says tough! Alternative browser makers say there is nothing they can do about it. So essentially, you have to share browser use based on function and need.

Brief Browser History

Netscape was the last serious competitor to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. That challenge died three years ago. With Microsoft's IE being the browser of imposition for most PC's, Microsoft claims total market supremacy. Nearly every Web site is optimized for IE, and every copy of Microsoft Windows sold includes a version of IE.

AOL purchased Netscape but failed to do much with its bloated code. If nothing else, Netscape began to popularize the tabbed viewing feature that is absent from IE. This enabled users to view multiple Web sites by clicking a tab. Nearly all new browsers have this feature.

From the floundering impact of Netscape rose the Mozilla Organization. The Mozilla Organization gained much notoriety with beta versions of its new from the ground up browser, Firefox. Released in early November, Firefox 1.0 is breaking records for the number of adopters downloading and using the new browser. It comes with a suite of secure, independent, open-source Internet tools and a streamlined browser component.

Since 1999, IE has commanded an unshakable 95 percent share of the Web browser market. An announcement last June by two federal agencies recommending switching to an alternative browser set the stage for a shakeup.

Since then, Explorer's market share has been slipping. It has continued to retreat for five consecutive months, from 95.5 percent to 92.9 percent, by the end of October, according to WebSideStory, a Web analysis firm.

Switching Becomes Mixed Bag

As a technical writer, I spend countless hours per day working online. I spend even more time testing programs for ease of use. Troubleshooting becomes second nature in this business.

So the process of downloading and installing browsers and using one and then another searching for the best choice is not overly challenging. All of the alternative browsers -- there are five or six serious contenders with varying degrees of popularity -- install smoothly.

Making one or another the default browser is a simple matter. Just select that option within the browser's preferences menu. Most of them even tap into the Microsoft Favorites folder so switching to another chosen browser is seamless.

However, that is where the honeymoon ends. The aggravation begins when you move from casual user to default user. IE won't say good-bye completely. None of the alternative browsers works reliably on every Web site you visit.

The compatibility factor will haunt you. One or more features on a Web site might refuse to work with one or the other alternative browsers. Thus, you must reluctantly give up the visit or return in IE.

Also, as noted earlier, once you designate any browser other than IE as the default, most links in e-mail messages, electronic newsletters and some Web sites will not respond. Often, the same happens in reverse. With IE pegged as the default browser, you can forget about having links open from within the alternative browsers.

My work-around? I often run a desktop and several laptop computers with each one defaulted to a different browser. If a compatibility issue happens, I just rotate in my chair and use another PC. Obviously, this solution will not work for most users.

Best of Choices

Browser for browser, I am usually using either Firefox or a superior browser that is not seen on many industry radar scopes yet: Winferno Software's SecureIE. Winferno offers a fully functional free version. However, the paid version is worth the very small investment at $49.99.

The product acts as a first line of defense for Web browsing, much like antivirus software does for e-mail. The suite protects against inadvertent malicious downloads like keystroke logging and spyware from Web sites. Its new security features include BrowserShield, which filters out prohibited content, limits ActiveX to a safe list and routes all file downloads through the user's virus scanner. As a result, risks from keystroke loggers, password loggers, Spyware, ActiveX and JavaScript are greatly reduced.

Winferno President Jon Lol sees a better solution in getting the best of both worlds. Using SecureIE doesn't completely switch browsers. The product replaced the "broken" parts of Microsoft's Internet Explorer and gives the user a new and improved interface.

"This method gives users the best of both worlds," Lol told TechNewsWorld. "We provide a new user interface so we can add more features. It's a matter of perception if you consider this replacing or switching browsers."

Industry Reaction to Options

Following the Microsoft antitrust federal court decision, IE remains the browser most computer makers install. However, it isn't the only one they can offer. The court settlement opened the door, a little, for alternative browsers.

According to Winferno's Lol, PC vendors choose all of the software that is pre-installed, including the icons on the desktop. Some manufacturers do pre-install Netscape instead of IE. However, a call to the PC's tech support staff will uncover how to activate the also installed Microsoft browser.

Regarding Microsoft's continuing grasp on its browser's dominance, Lol admits that there is currently no complete way to make a full break from IE's reluctance to play nice with another default browser. Take this example:

"It appears that Windows Messenger disregards the 'default browser' setting and uses Internet Explorer for all links. However, our development team is working on a way to work around this," he told TechNewsWorld.

Brian Behlendorf, CTO of CollabNet and a board member of the Mozilla Foundation, said the court decision wasn't aimed at cutting the bonds of IE.

"Although it is now the case that MSIE is baked into the core of Windows, that was not the problem. The problem was the predatory way Microsoft was going after Netscape and forcing partners to exclusively offer MSIE over Netscape," Behlendorf told TechNewsWorld.

Compatibility Issue

Some experts admit that it might be a political, rather than a technical, reason that Web designers almost exclusively design solely for IE. So how difficult a task is it for Web designers to build in support for popular alternative browsers?

Some say it is not hard to fix.

"It's not difficult at all," Behlendorf of the Mozilla Foundation said. "The standards used for Web pages, HTML and CSS are published, reference standards, and Firefox implements them faithfully. Furthermore, many Web site designers have to code to standards set by the W3C for accessibility that allow for web pages to be accessed and used productively by those with handicaps such as limited sight or blindness."

However, Winferno's Lol suggests that alternative browser makers share some of the responsibility for Web site compatibility.

"In this particular instance it is more a case of the alternative browsers doing their best to come to the designers and not the other way around. Alternative browsers have to adhere to both the published standards of coding Web pages and the 'de-facto' standards arising from common practices of Web designers," he said.

Web site design is still an issue based on user dominance. Only a further erosion of Microsoft's king-of-the-browser status will force a change.

"In general, because of its dominant market share, most Web pages are designed for Microsoft Internet Explorer. Alternative Web browsers have varying degrees of success in emulating Microsoft Internet Explorer, and therefore, not all sites will display properly in an alternative browser," Lol told TechNewsWorld.

What's at Stake

Ultimately, the issues involving switching browsers -- free or otherwise -- come down to two factors: advertising dominance and vulnerabilities. With Microsoft's continued supremacy, sponsor money from Internet search engines has little competition. And virus and spyware writers have one major target -- MSIE users.

Security issues are the key factor, as Richard Stiennon, vice president of threat research for Webroot Software, sees it.

"One browser used by 291 million people means a target rich environment for spyware writers, Phishers, and virus writers. As in any eco-system diversity is healthier that monocultures. As Firefox eats away at Microsoft's market share the spyware writers will have to maintain code for two different browsers," he said.

"But in the meantime users are better off from a security and privacy perspective by switching to a non-Microsoft platform," Stiennon concluded.

Winfern's Lol said the search engine market drives the browser real estate issue.

"Most other 'free' browser vendors have a business model oriented around advertising by redirecting searches to paid results of their choice. Internet Explorer uses MSN, and Netscape will send you through AOL. Opera, on the other hand, actually inserts advertisements into its user interface. With Secure IE, however, there are no hidden business models as our product is not free."

How do you feel about government regulation of the U.S. tech industry?
Big tech companies are abusing their monopoly power and must be reined in.
Stronger regulations to protect consumer data definitely are needed.
Regulations stifle innovation and should be kept to the barest minimum.
Over-regulation could give China and other nations an unfair advantage.
Outdated antitrust laws should be updated prior to serious regulatory efforts.
Tech companies should regulate themselves to avoid government intervention.