Friday, October 27, 2006

A Tale of Two Web Browsers

In the last two years, the web has gone through a truly vibrant period of innovation. We've seen advancements in file sharing, social networks and rich media presentation, as well as the proliferation of Ajax and full-fledged applications that run within the browser.

Within the last week, two new browsers have been released -- both of which hope to be your first choice for bringing all of that new web content to your desktop.

Firefox 2, the latest version of Mozilla's open-source browser, was released Tuesday -- less than two years since version 1 and about 11 months behind version 1.5. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7, the first browser from the Redmond giant since IE6 arrived in October 2001, was released for Windows XP users Oct. 18.

Firefox is a global, open-source project, so development has been very swift when compared to Microsoft's closed-source development of Internet Explorer. We've had to wait a very long time between IE6 and IE7, so most users are installing IE7 with high expectations. The good news is that both browsers have seen some significant enhancements in three key areas: user experience, security and web standards. The bad news is that one browser still has better features and standards support than the other.

Internet Explorer 7

The user experience in Internet Explorer 7 is much improved over version 6. Most noticeably, the browser's interface is much more sleek and easy on the eyes. Joining the usual array is a new button for subscribing to RSS feeds. The orange RSS icon lights up when IE7 sniffs a feed -- click on the button and you see your subscription options. All of your subscribed feeds get dumped into your favorites menu, which displays a tabbed menu of bookmarks, feeds and your browsing history.

Internet Explorer 7 also features tabbed browsing, a first for any version of IE, though Firefox has had it for years and Opera has had it even longer. In addition to standard tab functionality, users get a pull-down list of open tabs, a "QuickTabs" button that shows thumbnails of all your open tabs, and a "New Tab" button. Ctrl+T, the keyboard shortcut familiar to users of browsers with tabbed interfaces, will also open a new tab.

The new IE has an integrated search field in the browser menu bar. Engines can be added for services like Wikipedia, Google and Amazon.com.

Support for web standards in version 6 of Internet Explorer was considered quite advanced when it was released in 2001, even if web developers pointed out that the rendering engine still had a few quirks. As the years ticked by and as the web evolved, many of those quirks grew into problems.

The aim of the Internet Explorer 7 development team has been to squash many of those long-standing bugs left over from IE6. For example, the new browser addresses more than a dozen bug fixes in the way it renders Cascading Style Sheets. Not all of the known problems have been fixed yet, but Microsoft has made an effort to tackle the most pressing issues first. In several hours of testing here at Wired News, Internet Explorer 7 rendered pages heavy in CSS, Ajax and nested table code very well.

Microsoft is also being extremely vocal about its new phishing-blocker tool built into Internet Explorer 7. The tool analyzes every web page it opens and looks for techniques commonly used by phishers. It also checks the site against a known database maintained by Microsoft. If the browser suspects that the page might be part of a phishing scam, a warning pops up. The browser also has support for SSL3 and opt-in support for ActiveX.

Firefox 2

Firefox gets points for being an open-source, cross-platform application with an extensible architecture, but none of that praise would account for anything if the application didn't actually deliver a stable, trouble-free web browsing experience. And, well, it does.

Firefox 2, which has undergone several small improvements since version 1 was released two years ago, is still the browser to beat when it comes to innovation. The user interface has been improved, and the Mozilla team has added enhancements to browser tabs and form controls. There's an in-line spell-checker with support for multiple languages and an auto-complete function for the built-in search engine box and for web forms.

RSS integration is limited to LiveBookmarks, which deliver headlines to folders in the browser's bookmarks structure, but since Firefox 2 is fully extensible, users can add an extension like Sage to parse feeds directly within the browser. Also, Firefox 2 offers several ways to subscribe to feeds outside the browser by default.

Security enhancements to Firefox 2 include its own spin on a built-in phishing-detection system. The Firefox phisher sniffer doesn't analyze the visited site in real time. Instead, it checks each site you visit against a regularly updated list of known phishing scammers. Also, Firefox doesn't use the word "phish" when it detects a scam. Instead, it warns you of a "suspected web forgery." Interesting.

The Verdict

The better browser is Firefox 2 for two reasons: innovation and ease of use.

Both browsers are loaded with modern productivity features, but while Microsoft is just introducing these features to its browser, Firefox has already had them long enough to refine them, enhance them and make them even easier to use. While Microsoft has added an integrated search box to IE7, Firefox has added auto-suggest query completion and advanced search engine management to its own familiar search box. IE7 can now handle RSS feeds, but Firefox has several options for adding feeds within the browser, a client or your web service of choice.

Put simply, Microsoft's new browser introduces several features that Firefox (and browsers like Opera and Safari) has had for a long time. Maybe this is because Mozilla's open-source development framework allows it to adopt browser trends more quickly, but whether they were thought up in-house or not, you can't beat the forward-thinking features in Firefox 2.

Tabbed browsing is one area where Firefox's ease of use excels. Simply making the "close" buttons on each tab accessible even when the tab isn't currently at the front of the stack is an example of the attention to detail that's gone into Firefox 2. Also, the in-line search feature in Firefox 2 makes finding that one elusive phrase dead easy -- with fewer keystrokes and without using a pop-up window.

A word on web standards: While Microsoft has been quick to toot its own horn about fixing many of the web standards hiccups left over from IE6, the Firefox faithful are even more quick to point out what IE7 doesn't support. There will always be developers, naysayers and other biased individuals who will complain about one browser not supporting some feature that another browser does. Not to dismiss those arguments or de-emphasize the importance of standards in any way, but the fact is that Firefox 2 and Microsoft IE7 both have support for web standards that is good enough for the vast majority of web content out there.

Microsoft has been criticized for pushing its own version of standards upon the web, and, correctly or not, it is in a position to do so since it owns the larger browser market share. With IE7, Microsoft is making steps toward repairing the damage done by its bullying. While the new Internet Explorer browser still isn't perfect, its improvements show that Microsoft is likely moving away from such alienating strategies that have plagued the web in the past.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

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