Browser Face-Off

Browser competition hasn't been this fierce since the mid-1990s, and the fight is becoming even more intense as Microsoft, Mozilla, and Opera ready new versions of their software for release.

With version 7 of Internet Explorer, Microsoft's developers have seriously overhauled the browser, giving it popular features such as tabbed browsing, as well as improved security, thus closing the gap between it and its rivals. But even though the new iterations of both Firefox and Opera bring mostly incremental changes, that's still enough to keep them ahead of IE.

We took Internet Explorer 7 Beta 1, Firefox 1.5 Release Candidate 1, and Opera 9 Preview 1 out for a spin. Both the and the are available for download, although Opera isn't publicizing this early testing version; the browsers' final editions should be out around the time you read this. On the other hand, the IE 7 beta will not be available for downloading until early next year.

  • IE's Makeover
  • Firefox Gets Auto-Updates
  • Opera Surges
  • Browsing to Come
IE's Makeover

IE's changes are long overdue, and the browser remains a work in progress, with final code not slated until sometime in 2006. But as it stands, many of its new features still don't match functionality already present in the other browsers.

The new version of IE will finally allow you to open multiple Web pages on tabs in the same window, a capability that Firefox and Opera have offered for a while. But the feature works in only a basic way for now. Microsoft says more is in store, including an option to view all tabs in a one-page thumbnail layout (absent in both Firefox and Opera). However, the ability to drag and drop tabs to rearrange them, now included in Firefox and already available in Opera 8.5, likely won't make it into IE, says Gary Schare, head of IE 7's project management team.

IE 7 lets you easily find and bookmark an RSS feed on any given Web page, but once subscribed you have no way to get a quick preview of that feed's headlines--as you can with Firefox's Live Bookmarks--so you lose a significant part of RSS's usefulness.

IE's layout is changing too, making it look more like its rivals. Included is an integrated search box similar to that in Firefox and Opera, and the toolbar and button arrangement in IE 7 is more compact.

In addition, IE 7 and the new version of Firefox each offer an easy method for deleting personal browsing data--including the cache, history, and saved data from online forms you've filled out--via one menu option. The feature already exists in Opera 8.5.

Microsoft has tightened IE's security in other ways, too. For example, an added antiphishing filter aims to warn users if they visit a known or potential phishing site--a function previously available only via third-party toolbars. You also get an add-on manager that leaves some ActiveX controls enabled but can disable IE's access to other ActiveX controls, like those within the Windows operating system, which criminals could manipulate to gain control of your computer. In addition, the company says it has modified IE's code to make it harder for hackers to exploit. The changes sound promising, but the real test will come when consumers use IE 7--and the new browser becomes a target for malware authors.

Firefox Gets Auto-Updates

Firefox made a big splash with its initial 1.0 release in November 2004. With more than 100 million downloads since, the Mozilla Foundation is now trying to build on that success with version 1.5, which includes no radical changes to the open-source browser but does have some incremental upgrades, such as drag-and-drop tab reordering.

Automatic updates for the browser will probably prove the most welcome change for users. Firefox's old update procedure was more like a full reinstall; the new process is streamlined and smooth.

Aside from convenience, making updates easier and faster can help security, which has become more of an issue for Firefox. With the new approach, more people will likely obtain and install updates, helping to minimize the number of vulnerable systems. Critical flaws discovered in 2005 have demonstrated Firefox's vulnerabilities, though the browser still beats IE in that regard. In a recent study, security analysis and software company Secunia found that Firefox had 3 unpatched security risks out of 25 discovered problems, compared with 20 unpatched risks for IE out of 86 found. Opera had them both beat, with no unpatched holes out of 8 detected. Of course, as browsers become more popular, they also become more attractive targets.

Many browser extensions (add-ons that incorporate new functionality) already have updates for the new release, which automatically checks for new versions of out-of-date add-ons when you start the browser. But quite a few don't yet work with version 1.5. Current scripts for the popular Greasemonkey add-on might not work in version 1.5, for example, and users will have to wait to see which authors will update their scripts and when.

Tools for subscribing to RSS feeds remain unchanged. If sites are not coded for Firefox, you must go through a clunky mechanism to add feeds to your favorites, or use one of the many extensions available to simplify the process.

Opera Surges

The most significant change for Opera happened in September, when the company eliminated ads in the interface of its free browser. More than 3 million new users downloaded the browser in the three weeks following, according to the company, quadruple the usual rate. But Opera still has just a fraction of the user base Firefox has.

The upcoming version 9 does serve up a few tasty tidbits for the Opera aficionado, however. Although we were unable to test these features, the company says the final version will include support for widgets, small external programs that use Opera's engine and can run on the desktop. Existing widgets for other programs can display the weather, show Webcams, and much more. Users will also be able to choose which Web sites can run JavaScript or display images. And the impressive built-in RSS feed handler, which we tried in the beta, now supports Atom 1.0 (a newer protocol similar to RSS).

Most remaining changes involve page display and layout. That may be because Opera, a suite with an integrated e-mail client, already has many of the goodies being added to IE and Firefox. But because many Web pages are exclusively tested with--or written for--Internet Explorer, which tends to disregard Web consortium guidelines, the standards-loving Opera programmers have to work hard to ensure pages display properly in their browser. The company will continue the practice of "site patching," in which it automatically distributes custom JavaScript to its browsers to fix layouts for sites that it knows display improperly.

Browsing to Come

The renewed browser wars are still in their early stages, and though IE has been losing market share over the past year, it remains dominant. As of late October 2005 almost 81 percent of Americans used IE, and 14 percent favored Firefox, according to Web analytics company OneStat.com. Only a small percentage of people used Opera, Netscape, and all other browsers combined.

The number of users jumping to Firefox has slowed recently after its Cinderella-like debut, leading some experts to suggest only a finite number of people are willing or able to try an alternate browser. "For many people, Internet Explorer is just not broken," Geoff Johnston, an analyst with research firm WebSideStory, said in a press release.

Those users may have even less reason to switch when IE 7 launches. At that point, IE, Firefox, and Opera will all have similar features and similar, tight interfaces.

To enjoy more-distinctive features, you have to turn to smaller browsers. Flock, a Firefox-based browser, just hit the Net with a pre-beta offering that is still rough but contains a number of nice features in the new realm of social browsing. This growing trend puts heavy emphasis on sharing information via blogs, swapping photos and bookmarks, and interacting with people, as opposed to consuming static Web content and keeping your preferences and opinions to yourself.

Flock ties available services directly into its browser. The Deli.cio.us site already lets users store and share bookmarks; Flock bookmarks synchronize with the site automatically. A blog editor is built in, as is a Flickr toolbar that lets you easily upload pictures to that photo-sharing site. Whether Flock will become anything more than a niche browser remains to be seen, but it's worth tracking.

In the end, it's the perfect war: No one loses. If you use IE and don't want to bother with one of the richer options, you'll finally get some of the features that fans of other browsers have crowed about, with added security to boot.

If you want more out of your browser, choosing Firefox or Opera comes down to whether you like to tinker.

Firefox's huge laundry list of add-ons let you poke and play until you have a browser heavily customized to your personal tastes. That's a seductive idea, but in practice it requires a fair amount of time and effort.

Opera is different. It comes with several advanced features that you can get in Firefox only with add-ons, and that IE lacks entirely. However, Opera has no plans to introduce Firefox-like extensions, so if you don't like the way it does something, you're stuck.

Regardless, just having a choice is a great thing for consumers. Vive la différence.