I’m not a Microsoft-basher; I use their products productively
virtually every day of my life. Excel is my workhorse, Word my constant companion
for nearly a decade, PowerPoint my standard for presentations, Visio Professional
a powerful tool in my arsenal, and I rely on Outlook to keep track of notes,
emails, contacts, tasks, and my calendar.
I have also been using Internet Explorer since about 1996,
when it came pre-loaded on a computer I bought. I found it to be adequate,
and certainly seemed to be on the cutting edge (anybody remember “push technology”?).
But increasingly over time it came to be an annoyance, and may represent
the worst of what Microsoft is accused of: arrogance (openly flaunting
internet standards and creating new ones on its own), monopolistic aggression
(folding IE into Windows, virtually destroying the independent browser
market overnight), and outright carelessness (creating a browser with
a seemingly endless number of security holes). IE is relatively slow
and clunky, has a sub-par user interface, and seems to be an ideal breeding
ground for adware, malware, spyware, worms, you name it.
Geeks Want You to Use Internet Explorer
In fairness to Microsoft, a significant portion of their
woes with IE are probably unavoidable; IE, with its whopping share of the
browser market, is simply a big, obvious target. While there are plenty of
script kiddies and crackers who revel in sabotaging all things Microsoft,
people who are after you for your private information and who want to push
ads on you could care less whether Microsoft wrote your browser’s code or
some idealistic troupe of open-source pioneers. If some other browser gained
significant market share, I’m sure they would be after that browser’s vulnerabilities
too, and every browser is vulnerable to one degree or another. None
of this should excuse the degree to which IE is susceptible to these problems.
Despite my careful online behavior and regular downloading
of security updates from Microsoft, I found that my system was absolutely
besodden with adware, spyware, and malware; an Ad-aware scan revealed over 150 different
intrusive objects. My browser had been hijacked, God only knows who was spying
on me, and pop-up ads were no longer getting defeated by my Google toolbar.
Nasty stuff, and all of it courtesy of a worldwide army (including the Russian
mob) of malevolent geeks and profiteers eagerly exploiting IE’s security
holes. Fortunately, Ad-aware was very effective at getting rid of that loathsome
Until, that is, I ran IE again. And then they came back.
Again. And again. Each time I would run Ad-aware, and they would be gone,
and then they would come back. Finally, my copy of IE simply started freezing.
Lest you think I’m making this up, or that I’m just a
Microsoft basher, consider this: the United States Government’s Department
of Homeland Security considers Internet Explorer enough of a threat to security
to recommend you find another browser.
Also, some companies, fed up with constant security hassles, are migrating
their workstations to alternative browsers.
Aside from jumping the Windows ship altogether and going
to Mac or Linux—most of us have too much invested in hardware, software,
and compatibility to hazard that—alternatives do exist in the commercial
and open source realms.
In the commercial realm, the Opera browser is a longstanding
alternative that first arose years ago as a fleet, trimmed-down response
to increasingly bloated competitors Netscape and IE. Opera is available
for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Solaris, FreeBSD, OS/2, QNX, and even cellphones
(which I will be reviewing for my Roam Office column in Techtrax). You
can download an ad-supported free version of Opera or pay $39 for an ad-free
version product. Opera also includes a mail client, a chat client, and
an address book (that does not import directly from Outlook, but will from
In the open source realm, the release of the Netscape Navigator code into
the open source domain in 1998 spawned the Mozilla open
source browser initiative, a collaborative project that has resulted in an
award-winning browser, mail client, web page development environment, and
news reader. I have tried Mozilla a couple of times over the years (once
as recently as a year ago), but since I read my mail in Outlook, I don’t
develop websites, and I don’t read newsgroups, a large portion of the program
was unnecessary to me. What I needed was a lightweight browser that was extensible
but was not loaded down with extras that I didn’t want.
To address just this need, the kind people behind the
Mozilla project crafted Firefox,
designed from the start to be a lightweight, fast, secure, multiple platform
stand-alone browser. Built on the mature Mozilla code base (built itself
on the timeless—as in, all of about ten years old—Netscape Navigator code),
Firefox is Mozilla stripped to its essentials.
Load it, and what you find is a fast-loading, clean, uncluttered
interface, and all your bookmarks, settings, and even your site logins have
been imported. The standard browser navigations icons (Back, Forward, Reload,
Stop, and Home) are all there, along with an address bar and a nice Google
search bar next to it, handy for quick searches.
The interface is highly customizable. For instance, here
are a few of the themes that can be easily added to Firefox via the built-in
Bookmark management is critical for heavy internet users
such as me, and I must say that Firefox’s bookmark services are the most
intuitive, easiest to use and maintain that I’ve found among the browsers.
The standard bookmark toolbar can be activated via the View menu, and appears
underneath the navigation toolbar:
As you can see, the bookmark menu has both folders, which
group bookmarks by category, and individual bookmarks for those that either
don’t fit into categories that you create or that you commonly access.
Let me introduce one very handy feature, Open in Tabs,
to showcase another great feature, tabbed browsing. As a news junkie, I visit
a number of sites throughout the day to keep abreast of what’s going on.
With Firefox and tabbed browsing, I can load all of the sites that I like
to visit into one window with just a click of my mouse:
Now, each page in the folder is loaded simultaneously
as tabs in the current window:
I can now easily tab back and forth between the pages
to quickly browse my favorite news and commentary sites (admittedly conservative,
but you can substitute The Nation, Salon, the Washington Post, Michaelmoore.com,
or whatever your heart desires).
I mentioned that Firefox is extensible, and what I mean
by that is that there are a variety of free tools that you can easily add
to Firefox via the Extensions Manager:
From here, Firefox can find, install, update, or uninstall
from, at the time of this writing in July 2004, over 80 different extensions
enabling Firefox to:
search Bible verses
anything on web sites: ads, images, Flash content, scripts,
to LiveJournal directly from Firefox
up words in an online dictionary
directly to, or “stumble upon” websites that have been highly rated by
reload pages at set intervals
…and much more. I have only begun to seriously evaluate
some of these features, and the Bible verse lookup tool is a prize in itself.
One “feature” that always bugged me was that if I mistyped
a URL in IE (such as www.yahoo.cmo), IE would send me to a proprietary Microsoft
search page, which would lose my original URL and make me either follow one
of IE’s guesses about where I wanted to go, or I would have to type the URL
all over again. Firefox’s navigation tool uses Google’s “I Feel Lucky” service,
where you type in a search term and Google takes you to the most likely results
page. For instance, if I want to go to Yahoo!, I just type “yahoo” in the
navigation bar, and Firefox takes me to Yahoo!. This works for all the obvious
websites: “drudge” gets you to the Drudge Report, “nyt” gets you to the New
York Times, “amazon” gets you Amazon.com, etc. What becomes interesting about
this feature is that if Google/Firefox does not have an obvious web page
reference to take you to, it will provide a definition of the word for you
from Dictionary.com. For instance, I typed in “fungible” and got:
Ha! Handy tool. Here’s an example of what Firefox provided
when I keyed in a variety of terms:
“find a good book”
Hennepin County Library search page,
where books can be searched for by author, genre, etc.
The Weird History 101 website
The website for DVD sales of Psycho
The website for the PBS special on evolution
The Final Draft website for scriptwriting
The Ridiculous Infomercial Review website
So far, Firefox’s rendering of pages has been predictable,
but the fact remains that there are some pages out there that can only be
properly viewed with Internet Explorer, along with some that I have found
render properly with IE and Opera, but not with Firefox (which I would classify
as a likely rendering bug in Firefox, rather than a reliance by the site
on proprietary IE calls). Coding websites that run exclusively on IE is a
travesty of web design and yet one more indictment against Microsoft; offering
tools for web development that preclude using another browser goes directly
against the design intent of the Internet. However, Firefox’s IEView extension
easily allows you to view a page in IE if you want to see how IE would render
it, simply by right-clicking on the page and selecting “View This Page in
But, what about security, since that’s the primary reason
I’ve provided for why I left IE. Quite simply, Firefox avoids several fundamental
design flaws of IE, in that:
is not integrated into Windows, and thus closes holes allowing access
to the OS.
does not support ActiveX JavaVM or VBScript, three Microsoft proprietary
technologies that are responsible for many security holes.
does not allow for the invasion of your system by adware and spyware
just by visiting a website (exactly what happened to me with IE).
Since I’ve had Firefox, as long as I don’t open IE I remain
blissfully free of popup ads and all the varieties of junkware. That in and
of itself is a powerful reason for switching browsers; the bonus is that
Firefox just also happens to be a better browser in most other ways as well.
For security, stability, speed, and pure enjoyability, Firefox wins hands-down
Those interested in Firefox should note that while
quite stable, the current release (as of early July 2004) is still considered
a beta “preview” and is pre-1.0 software.