Alternative Web Browsers

Many of us in the internet industry will remember the late 1990's as the time of the "browser wars". As a quick re-cap, the use of the internet was growing at an exponential rate since public access through commercial providers became available around 1994.

To use the internet, you need a web browser. If you're reading this story on our website, you are doing it through a browser. During the browser wars, Netscape and Microsoft competed to become the dominant piece of software to use the internet, initially based on features, then by giving the product away for free. Microsoft won the war by tying their web browser, Internet Explorer (IE) into Windows so tightly that only true die-hards actually bothered to download Netscape over their slow modem connections when they already have a browser installed.

Internet Explorer now represents around 95% of the browser market. The war is over. Netscape lost, and was bought in a bit of a fire-sale by AOL. Or so you might be forgiven for thinking...

Before the "death" of Netscape and it's assimilation into AOL, the company decided to release the source code of the browser - its DNA if you like - as Open Source, allowing people all around the world to download and modify the browser itself. You have to be pretty keen to do this, but there are a lot of keen programmers out there, and from the ashes of Netscape, a new generation is rising.

In reality, Internet Explorer's victory in the browser wars has more to do with innovation and features than just Microsoft's market dominance - Internet Explorer was just better than Netscape. However, since the war ended, Microsoft has largely sat on its laurels, and in the background, a group of dedicated programmers have bought the core of Netscape back like a phoenix from the ashes. The result of their labour is named Firefox.

Why would you take the time to download a browser when you already have one? The answer is in its features and quality: Firefox is a better product. Here's a few examples:
  • Better support of standards - while IE has hardly moved for the last few years, internet standards have continued apace. While one could argue that 95% market share makes Microsoft "the standard", there are some new features that make browsing better and faster, and web developers are taking advantage of these standards.
  • Tabbed browsers - if you are often running with more than one open window, Firefox is for you. It has "tabbed browsers" across the top of your screen, making it even easier to flick between your internet banking, sports headlines and your online photo album without closing a window or losing your place.
  • Download manager - how often have you downloaded a file from a site only to find you can't remember where you put it? Or do you get annoyed when downloading multiple files that you can't see how fast they're going or how long they'll all take to finish? Firefox's download manager solves all of that easily.
  • Pop-up Blockers - Firefox automatically blocks pop-up windows from launching. Many pop-up windows try and install software on your machine, change your homepage, or track your habits in a sneaky way. If these things really irritate you the way they bother us, Firefox puts a stop to them.
  • Many other little features - things like "Find as you type" to search within a document instantly, more powerful control and debugging for developers, and the ability to "skin" the browser to make it more personalised - the list goes on.
The last point is security. Given the number of viruses that are finding their way onto your machine via email these days, it's important to use a browser that is solid and secure. Few people know it, but it's actually the web browser that reads your email messages - it just does it in the background. Firefox, with its community of self-enforcing developers, has a strong security model, and it shows. This is something that IE really falls down on, and a multitude of viruses would never have made an effect if it was not for security holes in IE.

If you want to give it a try, download it from www.mozilla.org/products/. Mozilla is the whole suite, which includes an email client and address book (competitor to Outlook Express) as well as Firefox. Alternatively, you can just download Firefox directly from www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/.

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