Alternative browsers get a day in the sun

Mozilla's Firefox stokes competition as new browsers come on the scene

People scoffed when Microsoft Corp. officials said during the company's antitrust trial in 2002 that the IT market would provide all the necessary competition, so there was no need for federal intervention.

Five years later, it looks like that may be true. For example, Linux server sales are matching those of Windows servers, and OpenOffice, an open-source office suite, is gaining acceptance.

And now competition among Web browsers, the original subject of the Microsoft antitrust action, is heating up.

The Mozilla Foundation's open-source browser, Firefox, in particular, has cut into Microsoft Internet Explorer's market share, causing it to drop below 90 percent for the first time in years.

Firefox is not the only option, though. Users can freely download their choice of more than 100 browsers. But while alternative browsers may offer some better features, are they ready for enterprise deployment? At this stage, that may be premature.

The big news in the browser arena is Firefox 1.0's success. Released by the Mozilla Foundation in November 2004, it had already passed 25 million downloads by mid-February.

'Firefox is growing in usage, and in selected audiences, it has significant market share,' said Ray Valdes, a research director for Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn. 'Its overall global market share is still in single digits, but if you go into some IT departments, you will find 80 percent of the employees using Firefox.'

Firefox is based on the Mozilla engine, the same one Netscape uses. It is a lightweight, standalone browser with several advantages over Internet Explorer. For one, it has tabbed browsing, so the user can keep multiple sites open without having to run multiple windows.

Not only does this save time when browsing, it also greatly reduces the computing resources consumed, since only one instance of the software is running.

It comes with a built-in search function, so you don't have to open a search engine's page. Google is the default search, but it also comes loaded with Yahoo, Amazon, Creative Commons, Dictionary.com and eBay.

If these are not enough, just click on the Add Engines button and you can select from hundreds of other choices.

GCN readers, for example, may be interested in setting up a link to the FirstGov search engine or one of the 38 computer programming searches.

Another advantage is customization. Firefox itself is a simple browser without a lot of add-ons. But greater functionality is readily available.

Clicking on Tools/Extensions lets you select from hundreds of tools, such as a bar showing the current weather, ad blocking, a bandwidth tester and an RSS news reader.

But the prime driver of Firefox downloads is security. For now at least, it has some advantages over Internet Explorer.

In addition to the coding bugs that are always cropping up, Internet Explorer has one primary flaw in its basic design: It is closely integrated into the operating system and numerous applications.

On the one hand, this makes it easy for users to perform tasks such as accessing online help. But on the other, it's also a security nightmare because holes in the browser software can open access into other systems.

'There are advantages to integrating the browser into the operating system, so it is a part of every task rather than a discrete piece of software,' Valdes said. 'But this also makes it more difficult to patch, and a security breach can have a ripple effect across the entire operating system.'

Another factor is that Internet Explorer, with its overwhelming market dominance, is also the overwhelming target of choice for hackers.

Firefox is not without flaws: In fact, it issued its first security update in February.

So while Firefox is initially a safer choice, as it gains popularity its flaws may be targeted as well.

'Firefox likely has its own share of security vulnerabilities, but hackers have ignored it because no one used it,' Valdes added. 'One can expect that as more people use it, hackers will turn their sights to it.'

Other Alternatives

Although Firefox is the most popular of the new browsers, there are many others to pick from. The Web developer community evolt.org has 118 browsers available for download on its site (www.browsers.evolt.org).
From an enterprise standpoint, however, you will want to stick with products that have strong developer or vendor support. These include:

Netscape Navigator. Netscape is built using the same core engine as Firefox. Though the browser has been somewhat neglected over the past few years as its ownership has repeatedly changed hands, it is still a viable option and may be a better choice than Firefox in the near future.

Later this year, Netscape is expected to release a version that will have enterprise management functions as well as several other useful features.

For example, it will have a dual-browsing engine. If a Web page does not properly display with the Mozilla engine, the user can click a button and render that page using the Internet Explorer engine. It is a larger and more complex browser than Firefox, but if size doesn't matter, this can be a better option.

Opera. With 20 million downloads last year, Opera is one of the more popular and better supported alternative browsers. It is a stable, commercially supported product that has tabbed browsing, integrated search (Google, Amazon, eBay, Price Comparison and Downloads.com), and an e-mail application. It can be operated without a mouse by keyboard or voice.

Opera is available as a free download with an advertising panel, or for $24 without ads.

Avant. Avant is an upgrade to Internet Explorer and requires that Explorer be installed as well. It is designed for those who want to stick with Explorer but want some newer features.

It includes, for example, tabbed browsing, flash animation blocking and built-in search (Google and Yahoo). It is a free download.

In addition to these options, there are specific browsers designed for and shipped with non-Windows desktop operating systems. Apple computers, for example, ship with the Safari browser, and the KDE desktop for Linux comes with the Konqueror file system/browser/e-mail package.

So does this mean one can dump Internet Explorer and switch to something else? Probably not.

To begin with, there is the issue of how well the browsers render existing Web pages, both when browsing the Internet and when accessing internal Web-enabled applications.

The alternative browsers provide better support for Web standards than Internet Explorer does, so theoretically that shouldn't be a problem. But since Microsoft had a 90 percent-plus share of the market, many designers built their sites or programs to take advantage of Explorer's proprietary features.

In addition, the primary reason to switch'security'may not be a problem much longer. At the antitrust trial, Micro- soft said the IT industry was competitive enough to keep the company on its toes.

Well, as soon as Firefox emerged as a competitive threat, Microsoft announced it would be issuing an update to Explorer that would address many of the security issues.

It is too early to tell how effective that response will be, but it may be better than recoding your applications and sites to work with other browsers. Plus, there is the issue of how to support an alternative browser.

'Internet Explorer is part of the overall IT support infrastructure, with tools like Windows Update Services, third party tools and an administrative toolkit,' Valdes said. 'Firefox is really just a browser that is oriented for individuals to download and use, which is another reason why we don't recommend that enterprises switch away from Internet Explorer to Firefox.'

Drew Robb of Glendale, Calif., writes about IT.

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