Secure, Safe, Feature-Laden Web Browsing
Alternatives to the standard IE.
- By Don Jones
- July 28, 2004
Back when Microsoft released Windows 98, the company made the decision
to include IE as a part of the base Windows OS. A nice decision in that
we all get a free Web browser, but a bad decision in many other respects.
Now that Windows is on an every-four-years product release schedule, we
don't get new browser features that often. IE's built-in support for VBScript
and ActiveX (support disabled by default in Win2003, by the way) made
the browser one of the biggest security flaws in the entire OS. There's
plenty of reasons to wish we had a new IE. Windows XP Service Pack 2 will
bring some much-needed updates (like pop-up blocking), but we won't get
an all-new browser until Longhorn ships in 2005. Sorry, 2006. Or is it
If you spend a lot of time on the Web, as most of us do as part of our
jobs, you need an efficient Web browser. They're out there! My current
favorite is Firefox, the next-generation browser from the Mozilla Foundation
www.mozilla.org, the open-source
group that spun off from Netscape a few years ago. Forget about the usual
open-source style of "download this source code and compile it yourself";
Mozilla offers complete, ready-to-install MSI packages for Windows and
installers for other operating systems.
Firefox gets you cool, tabbed browsing, making it easier to peruse several
sites within a single window. You also get built-in pop-up blocking, which
is nothing short of godsend. It doesn't support VBScript or ActiveX, instantly
plugging half the security vulnerabilities that crop up in IE, and that
means Web sites can't invisibly install software on your computer. It's
only 6MB for the entire installer package—about half the size of
IE. Firefox has built-in search engine integration, which not only works
with Google but with nearly any other search engine you might prefer through
the innovative use of plug-ins. I hook mine up to search eBay. Sure, you
could install the Google Toolbar in IE (which I did), but having instant,
integrated access to whatever search engines you want is efficiency.
Firefox's extension capability allows third-party components to be plugged
in—not unlike ActiveX controls, except that the browser's Options
dialog lets you see what's been added and then disable any extensions
you no longer want. One nifty extension replaces the usual right-click
context menu with a funky, round, icon-based "pie" menu, meaning
you don't have to move your mouse pointer more than a few pixels to select
any available menu option.
There's some well thought-out features, too. I hate how IE's autocomplete
feature pulls up URLs that I've mistyped in the past; Firefox lets me
edit my autocomplete list.
The downsides are few, but pretty severe for corporate users. Auto-proxy
discovery simply doesn't exist, so if you've invested in a firewall like
Microsoft ISA Server, you'll have to get used to manually configuring
clients—yuck! There's also no automatic connection detection, so
users will have to manually reconfigure their proxy when they move their
laptop to their home network. For that reason alone, I'd say Firefox—and
most non-IE browsers—are less than suitable for major corporate deployments,
unless you can take steps to ease configuration pain. But Firefox is an
efficient, cool-looking browser to run on your own workstation. And hey,
isn't Web browsing supposed to be cool?
Don't get me wrong—IE isn't horrible. When the next version eventually
does come out, I'll probably switch to it. I switch applications like
browsers more often than most people change their socks. But if you've
never tried another browser—or media player, or IM client—give
Firefox a shot. You never know what little efficiencies you'll pick up
with a different product. And there's a lot to try—Netscape (similar
to Firefox), Opera, and many more.
What browser do you prefer and why? What killer features are you hoping
Microsoft will stuff into the next IE release? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you're sticking with IE as your browser, grab the
Google Toolbar (www.google.com), which not only offers
browser-integrated searching but built-in popup blocking,
Want to centrally manage users' Internet Connection
Firewall settings? In WinXP SP2, of course, it's called
"Windows Firewall," and SP2 comes with an
array of Group Policy settings that allow central management.
These settings can be configured in either a 2000 or
2003 domain, but you'll have to actually edit them from
an XP SP2 machine, since neither 2000 nor 2003 come
with these settings built-in.
Mozilla Foundation: www.mozilla.org
The Houston Chronicle reviews Firefox: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/business/2447483
Get a mini Mozilla-based browser for your PDA: http://www.mozilla.org/projects/minimo/
Article on reasons to use Firefox over IE: http://www.flexbeta.net/main/articles.php?action=show&id=32
Don Jones is a multiple-year recipient of Microsoft’s MVP Award, and is an Author/Evangelist for video training company Pluralsight. Don is also a co-founder and President of PowerShell.org, a community dedicated to Microsoft’s Windows PowerShell technology. Don has more than two decades of experience in the IT industry, and specializes in the Microsoft business technology platform. He’s the author of more than 50 technology books, an accomplished IT journalist, and a sought-after speaker and instructor at conferences worldwide. Reach Don on Twitter at @concentratedDon, or on Facebook at Facebook.com/ConcentratedDon.