New Browser Directions
 

Time to Upgrade Your Browser

The words "upgrade your browser" can strike fear into the hearts of even the most leonine of IT managers. With diminished funding and ever longerto-do task lists, the last thing managers want to contemplate is a changeover in browsers. But no less an authority than Microsoft has supplied some pretty compelling arguments for a browser upgrade.

Microsoft recently announced that it would be getting out of the standalone browser busines for both the Mac and Windows. Internet Explorer would not be developed at all for the Mac and would become a part of the new Longhorn desktop OS. Now since IE^ hs not been upgraded in 3 years except for quarterly security upgrades - that is Microsoft's final argument for upgrading browsers - since IE users will have to make quarterly or at least semi-annual updates to their browsers why not upgrade by switching to functionally better and more reliable browsers from Apple, Mozilla/Netscape, Opera and others ?

The new Best Web Browser, Mozilla/Netscape ?

Attractive ROI

The logic for switching browsers has never had a more attractive ROI. The foremost reasons are security, reliability, speed and functionality - wow, not just a few. If you or your organization are running any Internet Explorer, Netscape or Opera browser IE 5.x or earlier version, NS4.x or earlier, Opera 4.x or earlier - you are surfing at great risk. These early version browsers have a number of security holes that have been patched up in later versions. But if you continue to use them - you do so at your own risk.

For reliability and speed/performance reasons, Netscape users should upgrade past 4.x and 6.x.Likewise, Microsoft's 5.x and 6.x Explorer version has been plagued with security problems. So much so that Microsoft and the security industry have put users and Web administrators on notice - if you don't update the Internet Explorer browser as soon as the next security patch arrives (about one a quarter-April 2003 is the latest); you risk being a victim of one of the many viruses targetted to attacking Microsoft's software. In contrast, Opera has a well deserved reputation for very good performance and reliability. It has always been the smallest and fastest download and install. And through Opera 4-5, it has added features such as Java support plus a CSS and DOM implementation second only to the new Mozilla/Netscape browsers.

In sum, latest Mozilla (1.31) and Opera 7.11 browsers provide security, reliability and performance improvements over InternetExplorer that make very attractive ROI arguments on their own. Simply put - not having to deal with infuriated clients because of the trimester IE security breech/disaster or having to roll out the quarterly updates because yet another critical flaw was found in IE - this can mean substantial savings in staff time and IT budgets.

Benefits of the Switch

So far we have only spoken of the benefits of the switch and upgrade in negative terms. If you don't you will suffer security , reliability or performance problems depending on which 5.x or earlier version browser you are using - not just Internet Explorer. Now lets consider some of the positive benefits. Both Mozilla/Netscape and Opera really shine because they have brought a lot of innovations to the browser world in the past two years. First, Netscape/Mozilla allows users to open a new window 3 ways:
1)overlaying the existing window as usual with left mouse click;
2)open a new browser window with CTL+left mouse click;
3)create a tab and add a new browser window there with right mouse click.
Opera has similar operations. But the most important capability is having tabs on mutiple browse windows available for quick context switching. The use of tabs is so convenient because one can see what windows are open and immediately go to that Window with a click of the tab. This tab feature is so helpful in surfing the depths of a site or application - this not-in-IE feature alone is a compelling reason to switch. And with the browser becoming the application interface of choice, this argument has further strength.

But there is more to the new browsers than tabbed windows. For example, both Opera and Mozilla have much more verstile sidebars with tabs for easily chosing a user-selected search engine, whats related, history, bookmark and other options. As well its much easier in Opera and Mozilla to customize not just the sidebar but the whole interface including skins. opera has pioneered in mouse gestures - where holding the right mouse button down and moving the mouse down and to the left means minimize that tabbed window, but moving to the right menas close the window altogether. Of course, Mozilla is following suit and incorporating a number of these mouse gesture - so CTRL+Scroll wheel up means zom in and enlarge the text and images in a window, while CTRL+Scroll down means zoom out and shrink the overall webpage contents. Both Opera and Mozilla/Nestcape have made numerous enhancements to accessibility through keyboard clicks and mouse gestures that duplicate and then go well beyond what is available in Internet Explorer.

As a consequence Opera and Mozilla are accumulating a lot of unique features and advantages over not just the older 4.x browsers but the "latest" 6.x version of IE. For example, Mozilla has a download manager. Users really like this, because it allows pause, restart, and launch capabilities including resuming a download interrupted by the Net going down or some other connection problem. Both vendors have downloads size (Win Mozilla at 11MB, Win Opera at 12.5MB) that are half the size of IE and faster and more convenient. The smaller size is also reflected in better runtime performance. Our unofficial benchmarks show Opera running about 10-20% faster than Mozilla and IE which traded places on performance depending on the sites.

Mozilla's Download Manager

Finally one of the most popular plugins for Mozilla and Opera is themes or skins. The Mozilla browser comes with 2 themes on download and themes.mozdev.org has many others availale so users can sport their own browser layout and look-n-feel. In fact one of the key features of Moziilla's interface is the XUL(XML-based User interface Language)framework that allows users to customize the layoutof their Mozilla browsers quite easily. In fact, the Mozilla design is so good that other software vendors and startups are using the interface as a tool for delivering cross platform interfaces. And this leads to the final benefit of making a browser upgrade.

Dynamic Functionality Benefit

One of the biggest benefits to switching is the new dynamic functionality that can be delivered to your browser by Web developers. This is a sometimes invisible benefit. Currently, many Web pages go through a whole series of checks - if(NS4browser or IE4browser)do this; else if(Operabrowser)do anotherthing; elseif (NS7browser or Mozilla1)do these_things; As you can see this is quite complex code. It is necessitated by two things:

First, as browsers are still evolving fairly rapiudly - many new features and coding practices don't work in the older browsers. But to maintain compatibility with those 5.x and earlier browsers, web developers spend a awful lot of time providing for workaround solutions or gentle degrades so that web surfers with old browsers are not abruptly cut off from web services or sessions.

Second, during the browser wars between Netscape and Microsoft, the two vendors deliberately made new features incompatible. Since Microsoft won the war; all parties agreed to stick to the W3C, ECMA, IETF and other web standards. So far Mozilla/Netscape have been best in implementing almost all of the HTML4, CSS, DOM, Java, JavaScript and other standards. Opera is not very far behind. Microsoft's IE is remiss on two counts. First, IE is still lagging on 2 to 3 year old promises to implement standards in DOM, CSS, HTML4, and JavaScript completely. Worse than the crime of omission, Microsoft IE continues to quietly push proprietary extensions to the standards that either have been replaced by recommended standards (see treatment of DOM naming, JScript/JavaScript conventions, and HTML layers) or will be replaced shortly by new standards. Of course Microsoft continues to push proprietary, closed-platform features like ActiveX over Java applets or Flash - even though ActiveX will have a limited shelf life in the new .NET and Longhorn total Windows rewrite.

The upshot is that because of lingering old browsers plus non-standard Internet Explore, developers have some tough choices . First, they can use the lowest common denominator features. and many do just that. Or developers can put in elaborate code checks as shown above in order to enable some of very nifty browsing features such as scaling text, hiding/revealing sidebar window panes, allowing hover-point explanations, enabling SVG and other animations, etc. Or developers can look for alternate delivery technologies.

Because Microsoft has been so remiss, these alternate technologies are starting to take hold in the the market. Java applets and applications have seen a resurgence and with major vendors Dell and Compaq agreeing to distribute Java with all their new desktop and laptop PCs , Flash animations with their snazzy, cross platform interfaces and other cross platform frameworks based on XML. such as XUL and XHTML/SVG.

But browser users can help despite the lingering belligerence from Redmond. Simply by upgrading from old 3.x, 4.x and 5.x browsers it is estimated that users not only enhance the security and speed of their browsing; but also enable a whole new level of dynamic, behind-the-scenes features regardless of which browser is chosen. So at a minimum do this - upgrade and use the latest version of your favorite browser.

Switch to Mozilla.

But here is the clincher - in a world where Gartner analysts see open standards, interoperability, and application integration as the top concerns of executive management, Microsoft's browser falls well back of Mozilla and Opera on all 3 counts. IE has failed to provide complete support of standards such as Java, JavaScript, HTML 4, DOM, CSS and others. Interoperability is only provided through APIs and gateways of Microsoft's choosing while cross platform compatibility extends only to the Mac OS and even there the Windows and Mac versions of IE differ notably. And because IE is barely cross platform and is so remiss in supporting W3C, IETF, ECMA and other defacto standards fully, it is much more difficult to build application inetgration into your systems when the browser is so "proprietary". Worse there is the danger of Microsoft's rapid change in direction and support based solely for competitive purposes as Microsoft has done in the case of their Java, CSS, and DOM support. So in a reversal of fortunes from 2 years ago, the best browser to choose from is not Microsoft Internet Explorer, but Mozilla. And here are the Top Ten reasons to switch to Mozilla:

1)Like IE, Mozilla is free, Opera is $29US;
2)Like IE and Opera, Mozilla is very stable and reliable; but unlike IE, Mozilla has had fewer security problems;
3)Mozilla is a 11MB, fast download; Opera is about the same; IE is 17MB;
4)The Mozilla install is simple and very, very fast in contrast to IE's slower setup with many dialogs and registry settings;
5)Mozilla matches and surpasses Internet Explorer in browse, chat, edit, and download features;
6)Although Microsoft Outlook trumps Mozilla Mail; the Mozilla browser works fine with Outlook or Eudora or you favorite mail program; ditto for Opera;
7)Tabs and customization of the layout of Mozilla are worth the price of admission alone;
8)Mozilla has more security and browser nuisance control features;
9)Mozilla is leading IE and matching Opera with new innovations like mouse gesture recognition, themes, cross-platform support, etc;
10)Mozilla adheres much more closely to Web standards than IE greatly simplifying web development and the features that can be offered to end users.


So let me repeat - if you are using a 5.x or earlier version browser no matter whose - update it to the latest for the security, performance and feature gains. And when you do update, switch to either Mozilla or Opera. Opera cost $39; but supports more platforms and languages; Mozilla has more functions and better standards adherence. But most important of all, its time to adhere to one of those famous Microsoft "calls for action" - its time to switch.


Jacques Surveyer is a web developer and photographer, see his photo work at www.neelsplace.com


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