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Target IE: A look at Internet Explorer alternatives (Part 1)

You've seen the warnings from analysts (heck, even I've chimed in on the subject). You've read about your peers inadvertently downloading Trojans, viruses, worms, and other malware. You've read about the numerous security vulnerabilities, many of which have set to be patched. You've heard about the competing products that offers better performance, more features, and better security. And you've heard how this product is a major part of the fixes in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), which will ship in a few weeks, but not help the hundreds of millions of Windows users that aren't yet using XP.

Yep, I'm talking about Internet Explorer (IE), and maybe it's time we put our money where our mouth is. If you're looking for the single most obvious attack vector for your PC, IE is as obvious a choice as anything else, and arguably the single buggiest component in all of Windows. You can't completely remove IE from Windows, thanks to Microsoft's brain dead product decision of almost a decade ago (Or can you? See below), but you can at least hide it. And if you do hide IE, and choose to use a competing browser, such as Mozilla/Mozilla Firebird, Opera, Deepnet, or others, you'll instantly have a more secure system as a result. Sure, IE bugs can still haunt you in such a case, but by simply not using IE, you've set yourself up for success, since most of these bugs rely on you using IE in order to get themselves on your system in the first place.

In this showcase, I'm going to evaluate my favorite IE alternatives, explain their strengths and weaknesses, and then look at an intriguing solution that promises to completely remove IE from your system. IE's the target, and various third party developers have got the ammunition you need to put it out of its misery for good. Let's take a look.

Mozilla Foundation

Created in 1998 as the Mozilla project, the Mozilla Foundation rose out of the ashes of Netscape with the specific goal of converting the source code for Netscape's never-released 5.0 browser suite into a purely open source product. After years of struggle, the Mozilla project finally hit its stride and incorporated as the Mozilla Foundation in 2003. Its current products are well-made and thoughtfully designed, but they're also absolutely free, making them an unprecedented software bargain. In fact, these are products so good that I would pay for them if I had to.

Note: In addition the Web browser products discussed below, the Mozilla Foundation also creates the excellent standalone email and newsgroup reader known as Thunderbird, as well as a number of related developer tools and other products based on the Mozilla code base.

Mozilla Internet Suite

The original Mozilla project was organized around Netscape's next generation Communicator browser suite, which was to have included integrated Web browser, email/newsgroup, chat, and Web page editing components. That project, now simply called the Mozilla Internet Suite, still exists today, and the current version is 1.71. Like its Communicator predecessor, Mozilla is a single, large application with a host of functionality. It includes the following features:

Navigator Web browser. A full-featured, standards-compliant Web browser.

Mail & Newsgroups. Similar to Outlook Express, this module provides access to email and USENET newsgroups, and provides spellchecking functionality.

Chatzilla. An IRC client.

Web Developer tools. Mozilla includes a JavaScript debugger and a Document Object Model (DOM) explorer.

Quality Feedback Agent. A bug reporting utility that helps the Mozilla Foundation improve its products.

Since we're only concerned with Web browsing here, I'll focus on the Navigator Web browser (Figure 1), which is the direct descendent of Netscape Navigator. Sporting an old-school, Navigator-style UI by default, Mozilla is fairly configurable, with a number of UI skins, or themes, including one called Modern (Figure 2) that is, in my opinion, anything but. Ah well.

Mozilla also shows its age in other ways. That is, the toolbars are only barely configurable. That is, you can remove toolbars but not modify them easily, making it almost impossible to whether certain buttons appear within them, and where. Most of these issues are related to the legacy Mozilla code base, which retains the integrated style of its predecessor. For this reason, newer, non-integrated applications, like Mozilla Firefox (described below) and Mozilla Thunderbird will ultimately replace the Mozilla suite over time.

That said, Mozilla isn't all old-school. Its browser rendering engine is top-notch, adhering closely to the latest Web standards. It's also exceedingly speedy, despite the lumbering complexity of the underlying suite. And it includes an integrated pop-up blocker, which works well (Figure 3).

Mozilla is also a work in progress. A pre-release version of Mozilla 1.8 is currently available, offering enhanced pop-up blocking features, support for the new Netscape Plugin API extensions that Mozilla Foundation recently announced. But at this point, I don't think it makes much sense for most people to pursue the integrated Mozilla suite anymore. These days, there's a lot more excitement around Mozilla's standalone Web browser and email client. And for good reason: These products offer stunning functionality that puts most of the competition to shame.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla Firefox (originally titled Phoenix because it was rising out of the ashes of the Mozilla Internet Suite, and then renamed to Firebird, a name that was dropped because of another open source project with the same name) is, in my opinion, the ultimate Web browser on Windows, and one of the most successful software products of all time. And don't be put off by its 0.92 version number (the 1.0 release is set for September): Mozilla Firefox (Figure 4) is mature, full-featured, and secure. Here are some of the best features in Mozilla Firefox.

Elegant pop-up blocking. Sure, Mozilla has pop-up blocking, but the pop-up blocking feature in Firefox is even better. And starting with the post-0.92 nightly builds of the product (find the latest version here), Firefox has even taken a page from the Microsoft playbook: It now emulates the pop-up blocking feature in the XP SP2 version of IE 6 (Figure 5) , a wonderful addition. That means that Firefox, too, sports a yellow information bar, from which you can configure pop-up blocking. Nice!

Tabbed browsing. The feature that initially attracted me to the Mozilla world was tabbed browsing, functionality that is sorely lacking in IE. In Firefox (and Mozilla), you can optionally open links (Figure 6) in a second browser page, which is accessed via a tab in the UI, like the tabs you see in a notebook (Figure 7). As you might expect, you can navigate from tab to tab using the mouse, but you can also switch between these pages using CTRL+TAB (similar to the way you use ALT+TAB) to switch between running applications. This feature is extremely useful, especially for those who like to open a huge selection of links at once; without tabbed browsing, you'd have a nightmarish collection of separate browser windows, making the Windows taskbar almost completely useless.

Find as you type. Firefox has had a neat find-as-you-type feature for a while, but in the post-0.92 build I'm using, the feature has become the default way of finding information on a Web page, thanks to an amazing and innovative new UI. Folks, this is groundbreaking stuff. Here's how it works.

To bring up the new find-as-you-type feature, hit CTRL+F as you would normally (or choose Find in This Page from the Edit menu). You might not notice it at first, but a thin Find pane has appeared at the bottom of the browser window (Figure 8). But here's the genius: Just start typing. As you type each letter, the first word in the page that matches what you've typed is highlighted. So for example, if I type my name, Paul Thurrott, I start off with "P," and in the examples I'm using here, the first "P" on the page is highlighted, in the word "Updates." (Figure 9). Then I type "a" and the word "Pack" is highlighted (Figure 10). When I type "u" my name is highlighted (Figure 11). Good stuff.

And if there are multiple instances of the word for which you're searching, Firefox will enable "Find Next" and "Find Previous" buttons to make the searching process easier. You can also optionally choose to highlight found words in yellow, like a highlighter pen (Figure 12).

Download Manager. Unlike IE, which features a weak dialog-based downloading method, Firefox includes a full-featured Download Manager, that helps you track your downloads, re-start or cancel stalled downloads, determine a default location for all downloads, and perform other related functions. For example, when you download a file in Firefox, by default, the Download Manager appears and displays the download progress; it also displays a list of previous downloads (Figure 13). Click the Clean Up button and the successful downloads are removed (Figure 14). You can also configure the Download Manager to automatically clear all completed downloads.

Configurable. In sharp contrast to IE, Firefox is almost infinitely configurable, with a fully customizable toolbar (Figure 15) that lets you fine tune which toolbars appear and where, and which icons appear in each toolbar, and where. But Firefox's customizability doesn't stop there. Like its Mozilla Internet Suite cousin, Firefox includes support for a wide variety of UI themes, which let you change the overall look and feel of the browser (you can even make it look like IE, ya geek). But Firefox's themes are more sophisticated than those in the fuller suite, because they can be applied on the fly without rebooting the application (as is required by Mozilla), and they are configured through a full-featured Theme manager (Figure 16).

Mozilla also includes a similar Extension manager (Figure 17) which lets you manage Mozilla Extensions, small add-ons that extend the functionality of the Web browser in unique ways. Naturally, most browsers can be extended somewhat. But the beauty of Firefox's approach is two-fold: It supplies a central location for managing these extensions, and a place where you can click a single button to instantly update all extensions to the latest versions. Nice!

And as you might expect, both Mozilla themes and extensions are supported by a wide collection of community-supplied add-ons. Chances are, if you want a particular look and feel, or function, for your browser, it's supplied through one of these features.

Small and fast. Unlike the full Mozilla Internet Suite, Mozilla Firefox is a small, fast, and nimble product. Indeed, even the Firefox download is small, less than 5 MB big on Windows.

Best Web rendering. Like its Mozilla Internet Suite brethren, Firefox features the most standards-compliant Web rendering engine on the planet. I've run into very few sites that don't render properly in Firefox, and if they do it's for one of two reasons: Poor Web development or the inclusion of potentially insecure ActiveX controls, which are IE specific. One of the biggest problems on the Web today is that most developers target IE, as it's the most popular choice. But IE doesn't handle certain Web standards correctly, leading to an IE-centric Web. If enough people start using Mozilla, or other Web browsers that more closely adhere to Web standards, like Opera and Safari, Web developers will have to start fixing their sites. Stand up and be counted.

Need I go on? Firefox is awesome, and getting better all the time. Jump on the Firefox bandwagon, and I promise you won't be disappointed. I've been using Firefox full time since it was still called Phoenix, and I've rarely looked back. In fact, I now only IE when I absolutely have to, on those few Web sites I need for work that include ActiveX controls. If it weren't for that, I'd drop IE for good. And while I feel that you should as well, at the very least, give Firefox a look. It's an incredible product.

On to part two: Opera...

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