NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, April 2011
Browser Wars Intensify
With Release of IE9, Firefox 4 - Part 1

By Ira Wilsker, Radio Show Host,
Columnist, College Professor and deputy sheriff
(click to email author)


I have made it no secret that Microsoft's Internet Explorer has not been my favorite browser. While it is integrated at the system level with all recent versions of Windows (except in Europe), Internet Explorer (IE) has had a reputation for being slow, bloated, insecure, and lacking many of the enhanced and improved features of its feisty competitors, such as Firefox, Google's Chrome, Apple's Safari (Windows version), and Opera. In the early 1990's, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, a university developed browser known as Mosaic had a near monopoly, with Netscape appearing as a potential competitor. Not to be left out in the cold, Microsoft decided to get into the browser business in 1995 with its Internet Explorer utilizing code licensed from Mosaic, and included with OEM versions of Windows 95, and Microsoft Plus! for Windows 95. Mosaic, which I personally used for several years, was phased out as Internet Explorer and Netscape fought it out for consumer acceptance and dominance in the browser market.

Netscape had some success becoming the dominant browser in terms of market share in the late 1990's, and then declined as Microsoft encouraged computer stores and internet service providers (ISPs) to give away countless copies of IE, while Netscape depended on sales revenue in order to survive. This behavior by Microsoft resulted in a successful antitrust suit by Netscape against Microsoft, but the decision was too late to save Netscape. It was very difficult for the commercial product Netscape, produced by the Netscape Communications Corporation, to compete against the well-financed Internet Explorer being given away for free by Microsoft. AOL purchased Netscape, but did not actively pursue its development, discontinuing it in 2007, and releasing its last security patch in 2008 (source: Wikipedia). In 1998, Netscape released most of the code base for Netscape Communicator under an open source license, meaning that anyone could develop software based on the open source code. Mozilla was a code name used by Netscape for its Netscape Communicator software in development, and that code became the basis for the now popular Firefox browser, which owes its birth to that early Mozilla code.

Now in the spring of 2011, the browser wars continue with the almost concurrent releases of Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 4, and Google's Chrome 10. Despite the clout of the powerhouse Microsoft, the alternative browsers are reducing the market share of IE. According to a recent article in USA Today (March 16, 2011 edition), citing a report by Net Applications, Internet Explorer's market share has dropped to 57% of the browser market, with Firefox a distant second with 22%. Chrome, being heavily promoted by the giant Google and its vocal group of users is third at 11%, followed by Apple's Safari with 6%, and the feisty European product, Opera, taking 2% of the browser market. While there are some lesser known browsers in use, some of which are technically excellent, these five browsers make up about 98% of the market.

Internet Explorer 9 is now being heavily promoted by Microsoft as the browser of choice optimized for Windows 7, but also runs well on Vista (not all enhanced IE9 features will work on Vista). Both 32 and 64 bit versions are available for free download from Microsoft (microsoft.com/ie). Sadly, Internet Explorer 9 will not run on Windows XP, and unless there is a change of heart at Microsoft, IE 8 will be the last version of Microsoft's browser that will run on the now discontinued Windows XP. According to Microsoft, there are "9 reasons to get Internet Explorer 9". The first reason for upgrading (or switching) to IE9 is speed; according to published results, IE9 is up to six times faster than IE8 because it utilizes hardware acceleration (available in most newer computers) to load and display web pages. IE9 is less cluttered and more visually appealing by minimizing the number of controls, only having the most basic controls displayed in the browser. The new version allows the user to "Pin" his favorite websites to the Windows taskbar, which will directly open (mouse click) the websites without first having to load the browser, speeding their display. The new IE9 has eliminated the separate search box on the toolbar, now combining the search and address bar into a single unit that performs both functions, the search being performed on whatever the user selected as his preferred search engine, with Microsoft's own Bing search engine being the factory default. Combining both functions in a single place saves valuable real estate on the desktop, freeing up more space for web pages. IE was among the last of the major browsers to incorporate tabbed browsing, and has now redesigned the "New Tab" (CTRL-T is the shortcut) which provides quick access to the most visited websites. Tabs that have been closed can be reopened, including tabs closed in the previous browsing session. With personal privacy becoming a more sensitive and serious internet issue, IE9 offers something in each tab it calls "InPrivate Browsing". According to the explanation built into IE9, "InPrivate Browsing helps prevent Internet Explorer from storing data about your browsing session. This includes cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data. Toolbars and extensions are disabled by default."

One complaint that users have had about previous versions of IE was its often long time to load, primarily due to the "add-ons" selected by the user. IE9 now incorporates an " Add-on Performance Advisor" that informs the user about the performance degradation of selected add-ons, and allows the user to selectively disable or uninstall any unnecessary add-ons. Another new feature in IE9 is called "Tracking Protection" which helps protect the user's privacy by limiting the information that some websites collect without the knowledge of the user. One of the popular add-ons utilized in earlier versions of IE was some form of download manager, because the download manager built into IE lacked the ability to effectively pause and restart downloads. Earlier versions of IE also lacked the ability to check downloaded files for malware or other malicious content at the time of download, a function performed by many of the third-party download managers. In IE9, downloads can be paused and restarted by the integral download manager, which also notifies the user if the downloaded file could harbor malicious content or other forms of malware.

Another feature built into IE9, that is not listed by Microsoft as one of the top reasons for using IE9, but which I found especially beneficial is what IE9 calls "Smartscreen Filter", a feature that provides protection from a variety of web born threats including anti-phishing protection, phishing being one of the most common methods of identity theft which uses counterfeit websites to trick users into disclosing personal data, typically credit card numbers, bank account numbers, ATM card numbers, PIN numbers, passwords, and other sensitive personal information, and displays the real website address rather than the spoofed web address. Another function of Smartscreen Filter is "Application Reputation" which reduces unnecessary warnings on reputable files that are downloaded, while showing severe warnings for downloads that may have a high degree of risk. The Smartscreen Filter also includes anti-malware protection that helps protect the computer from malware and other malicious software that may enter the computer through the browser. This feature is smart, in that it will either block an entire malicious website, or have a "surgical block" that can block purloined pages on an otherwise legitimate website, without blocking the entire website. Smartscreen Filter is integrated with the download manager previously mentioned, providing some protection from dangerous downloads. Based on the threat level, some downloads may be immediately blocked, while others will present the user with an appropriate alert giving the user the choice to delete, run, or save the questionable program or file.

Internet Explorer 9 is a very good choice for users of Windows 7, with its enhanced and optimized features that work with Windows 7, as well as its greatly improved performance, safety, and security features. While lacking some of the "bells and whistles" available with Windows 7, Internet Explorer 9 will offer Vista users increased performance and safety as well. Windows XP users cannot use IE9 as it is incompatible with XP, and must continue to use IE8 or an alternative browser, such as Firefox.

Next week, in Part 2, I will discuss the features and advantages of the newly released Firefox 4, and compare them to Internet Explorer 9. In a future column I will be evaluating Google's newly released Chrome 10, and Opera 11. Hold on; the browser wars are heating up as some strong contenders are in the fight.

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