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Windows XP Middleware Reviewed: Web browsers

Internet Explorer goes up against Mozilla 1.0 and Opera 6.01.

Internet Explorer goes up against Mozilla 1.0 and Opera 6.01

Microsoft Internet Explorer started out as a lackluster release, an afterthought add-on for Windows 95 that wasn't completed in time to make that product's August 1995 launch. IE 2.0, which appeared in beta form by the end of 1995, wasn't much better, though it did add support for interesting technologies such as VRML and cookies. But it wasn't until IE 3.0 hit in 1996 that Microsoft latched onto the successful formula of Windows integration. And since that time, IE has seen its usage grow dramatically, mostly to the detriment of former market-leader Netscape Navigator. According to the latest survey, in fact, IE is virtually the only browser out there: At the time of this writing, 96.6 percent of Web surfers are using IE, and the leading browser version is IE 6, which is bundled free with Windows XP.

But then that's the controversy. Microsoft's decision to commingle the code of Windows and IE has produced an epic legal battle with the federal government in which the company has been found guilty of violating US antitrust laws. As I mentioned in the introduction to this series of reviews, Microsoft was found to have commingled Windows and IE solely to thwart competition, and not for any valid technical reasons. In response to this verdict, Microsoft took the unprecedented step last summer of allowing XP users to uninstall the IE application (but not the underlying HTML rendering engine and other supporting technologies) and replace it with a competing product. This decision forms the framework for future middleware removals, which will be implemented in XP Service Pack 1 (SP1), due this fall. Or, if the non-settling states get their way, a more drastic remedy will be imposed in which even more choice will be given to end users, PC makers, and IT administrators.

But returning to the topic of Web browsers, there are three viable choices today for XP users, based on what I consider to be the core criteria of compatibility, stability, and feature-set. These choices include Internet Explorer 6, which is bundled for free with XP, the open source Mozilla 1.0 release, on which the next generation Netscape browser will be built, and Opera, an intriguing entry from Norway that focuses on security and open standards.

Internet Explorer 6
Internet Explorer 6 is the latest Web browser from Microsoft, or as the company likes to say, a set of core technologies behind Windows XP. However, IE 6 is also available as a separate download for users of other Windows versions, making this a curious (and suspicious) description. When compared to previous IE versions, IE 6 doesn't offer many new features, aside from an XP-like user interface (Figure), some digital media-related improvements, and support for Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) technologies that, as far as I can tell, isn't even used by very many Web sites anyway.

"IE 6.0 is the fastest and most stable browser available for Windows. Where it comes up short is with features you never know you need until you experience them in another browser."

But that's not to say that IE 6 is a dog. Far from it, actually, as it's my browser of choice. Instead, we might think of IE 6 as a staid, minor update to an already excellent product, one that's seen only basic upgrades in the past few revisions. Since the 1997 release of IE 4.0, in fact, Internet Explorer has been on the slow track, with stability and security updates being the biggest (if hidden) improvements.

IE 6 comes up a winner primarily because of its sheer ubiquitousness. When you browse the Web, you transparently understand that virtually every site on the Web is going to display properly with this browser, because Web developers simply can't ignore the market leader. For the bullet point crowd, Microsoft says that it supports a variety of Web standards, including Dynamic HTML (DHTML), CSS Level 1, HTML Document Object Model (DOM) Level 1, XML, and so on. Frankly, this list doesn't compare very favorably to that of Mozilla, say, but then IE 6 is still more compatible with actual Web sites, so I'm not sure that such a comparison matters much in the real world.

IE 6 is the most stable browser I tested, with infrequent crashes. If IE 6 does crash, however, a fault collection tool (Figure) appears, letting you optionally upload crash information to Microsoft so they can fix any problems in a future release. (In Windows XP, this feature is part of the underlying OS).

IE 6 is also the speediest performer of the bunch, by far, thanks partially to its deep-seated integration with the OS. It starts up almost instantly and loads pages quickly. The Mozilla organization has made fantastic headway with its Gecko rendering engine, but IE still came out on top with just about every site I tested.

Some of the new IE 6 features bear examination. A new Media Bar (Figure) replaces an ill-conceived Personal Bar that was briefly tested during the XP beta, offering users a way to play online video and audio clips right in the browser without having to open a second application. Sadly, this feature never seems to remember its customized settings, however: The first time you access an online media file, it asks whether you want to play it in an external player or using the Media Bar. And despite the fact that it asks whether you'd like to make the choice permanent, it continues asking you which player to use in the future. Aggravating.

For Web-based images, IE 6 offers two new features, an Image Toolbar (Figure) that lets you easily save pictures from a Web site, and an Auto Image Resize option that will scale large images so that they fit in your browser window (Figure). I eventually turned off both of these features, but I suspect they will be welcome additions for many people. Saving images in other browsers requires a non-intuitive right-click action, while none of the competition offers automatic image resizing.

In addition to IE 6, Microsoft also includes the free Outlook Express email application with XP. This is an excellent, full-featured email client and I'd use it daily if I didn't need Outlook XP's Personal Information Management (PIM) functionality as well. OE 6, like IE 6, is a minor upgrade when compared to previous versions, but again like IE 6, it was already quite good to begin with.

So if IE 6.0 is the fastest, most compatible, and most stable browser available for Windows, why use anything else? Where it comes up short is with features you never know you need until you experience them in another browser. And some of those features are available in an amazing Open Source success story called Mozilla. Let's take a look.

Mozilla 1.0
The Mozilla project began in early 1998 when Netscape released the source code for its Communicator 5.0 browser suite to the public. The goal, according to the company, was to rally the Open Source developer community around its Web browser technology. The company also created a new Web site,, to "promote, foster, and guide open dialog and development of Netscape's client source code." But it didn't take long for the Mozilla developers to realize that Netscape's 5th generation browser suite was a mess. And after the anticipated late 1998 release date passed by quietly, the Mozilla community decided to bite the bullet, develop a new HTML rendering engine, and scrap most of its previous work.

It was a bold move, though it eventually paid off after years of work. The new rendering engine, Gecko, proved to be far more modern and advanced than the original Netscape offering. And Mozilla developed an extensible, Gecko-based XUL user interface, also used by the other Mozilla components, such as Mail, Composer, and Address Book, that would let users customize the browser suite with new UI skins. Perhaps most importantly, Mozilla is cross-platform and you can download versions for Windows, Linux, Mac OS, and many other platforms. They all work almost identically.

"The true beauty of Mozilla can be found in its tabbed user interface and automatic pop-up window removal, two wonderful features sorely lacking in IE 6.0."

But initial Mozilla releases were laughable. The early Gecko browser UI was buggy and slow, and pathetic looking. Netscape, once the champion of the anti-Microsoft crowd, saw its market share die and then the company was swallowed up by online giant AOL, though AOL seemed more interested in Netscape's Web presence than its browser.

By mid-2000, Mozilla was somewhat usable, and Netscape released Mozilla-based beta versions of what would be called, simply Netscape 6. But Netscape 6 was a disaster, alienating long-time fans of the company and driving people to IE. The problem was performance: Mozilla, at the time, just didn't offer a nimble browsing experience.

With time, however, Mozilla came together. By late 2001, the Open Source laughing stock had matured considerably, and was suddenly a viable competitor. Core concerns such as UI, stability, and performance out of the way, the Mozilla team began working on adding unique features and improving the fit and finish.

First, the base Modern UI theme (Figure) was improved dramatically, providing users with, well, a modern-looking application, though a Classic look, similar to Netscape 4, is also available (Figure). I prefer Classic, which inexplicably offers XP-specific UI widgets. You can also download a number of other themes, or skins, though few are available today. But the true beauty of Mozilla can be found in its tabbed user interface and automatic pop-up window removal, two wonderful features sorely lacking in IE 6.0. Both features are optional, but highly desirable.

Tabbed browsing lets you open new documents inside the same browser window using a tabbed UI (Figure). Compare this with IE, where new windows can multiply across the screen rapidly. Tabbed browsing is like TiVo, the popular Digital Video Recorder (DVR) device, in that you don't realize you need it until you try it. But once you try it, you can't go back. The best feature of tabbed browsing is its (also optional) "open behind" functionality. When you're reading a Web-based article that has multiple links to other documents, you often want to open them for reading later. With "open behind," these tabbed documents open behind the current document, so your current browsing experience isn't interrupted. When you finish reading the current document, however, you can then go back and read the other documents you've already opened, all conveniently arranged behind the current one. I love tabbed browsing and sorely miss it when I'm not using Mozilla.

The other highly desirable, Mozilla-specific feature is automatic pop-up window removal. With a simple click of an option box in Mozilla's Preferences (Figure), you can eliminate virtually all pop-up windows, which of course, are mostly spam-like advertisements you don't want to see anyway. Compare this to IE, where a single browsing session can initiate dozens of unwanted and annoying pop-up ads. You need to find, install, and configure a third party application to get rid of these windows in IE.

Another neat Mozilla feature is its Sidebar, a customizable, tabbed frame of which can host a number of often-needed items, such as your address book, instant messaging buddy list, or whatever. My favorite sidebar tab is called What's Related. As you browse from site to site, this sidebar changes to display a list of other sites that are similar to the current site (Figure). So, for example, when you're visiting the SuperSite for Windows, you're referred automatically to Paul Thurrott's WinInfo, Activewin, WUGNET, and other related sites. Good stuff.

Regarding the core competencies, Mozilla also gets high marks, though it's not quite as compatible or stable as IE. It doesn't support ActiveX controls, which means I can't use it as my only browser, because one of the secure sites I access regularly for article updating requires this feature. And though most Web sites display correctly in Mozilla, some still do not.

In an attempt to better compete with IE, offers a Mozilla Quick Launch applet on Windows only, which pre-loads the Mozilla rendering engine, ala IE, allowing the application to launch more quickly. This applet takes up about 17 MB of RAM on my system, but I still recommend it to people that will be using Mozilla full-time.

What's most intriguing about Mozilla is that most people probably could use it full-time, and replace IE completely. If you're interested in the tabbed browsing feature or pop-up window removal, I strongly recommend Mozilla. You won't be disappointed.

Opera 6.01
Opera began life as a lightweight, free alternative to Netscape Navigator, which was a commercial product at the time. The goal was laudable: Provide users with a simple Web browsing experience in a compact package that offered support for real Internet standards, not the proprietary add-ons supplied by the competition. And initial Opera versions came in a download package that clocked in under 1 MB. It's fan base has always been tiny, but dedicated.

But things changed over time. Faced with free competition from IE and Mozilla, the latter of which, like Opera, is also offered on a number of platforms, Opera has turned on the features pipe in recent years. And though the download is still a relatively svelte 4 MB today, the resulting product is pretty full-featured. Opera 6.01, the latest version, offers two browsing modes: a Multiple Document Interface (MDI) mode (Figure), where document windows all open inside a single main Opera window, and a Single Document Interface (SDI) mode, where each document opens its own window (Figure), ala IE 6. When in MDI mode, individual documents are denoted by buttons on the bottom of the Opera window, similar to the tabbed browsing option in Mozilla. You get to choose the mode each time you start Opera (Figure).


"Opera is a curious animal, and it comes up short when compared to Mozilla. I can't recommend this product when superior--and free--alternatives are readily available."

Opera also offers a number of unique features, though I don't find many of them particularly compelling. You can zoom in and out of Web pages on the fly (Figure), and perform searches by right-clicking on words in Web documents, for example. The Opera UI, like that of Mozilla, is quite configurable. In fact, I eventually settled on a skin that resembles the Mozilla look and feel.

So how does it compare to the competition? Opera is a curious animal, and it comes up short when compared to Mozilla. I can't recommend this product when superior--and free--alternatives are readily available. I find its user interface to be overly busy, in sharp contrast to its original goals. The ad-enabled free version is annoying. And it offers no true email or newsgroup applications, as the other choices do, let alone the HTML editor or chat applications offered by Mozilla.

Opera is of most interest, I believe on platforms that aren't as well supported by browser choices, such as the Be OS and OS/2. But in Windows XP, we just have too many excellent alternatives to even bother. Both Mozilla and IE are vastly preferable to Opera in almost every way.

Internet Explorer 6 is an excellent browser, but Microsoft let it languish in recent years with a string of minor upgrades that have somewhat diminished this otherwise notable product. Looking back over the last several IE upgrades--IE 5.0, 5.01 (Windows 2000), 5.5 (Windows Me), and 6.0 (Windows XP), it seems the only valuable new features users have gotten are print preview and a pretty, XP-like UI. This compares quite unfavorably to IE's development in the early years, as Microsoft raced through the first four iterations of the product, madly adding features in order to better compete with then-market leader Netscape.

Well, witness the fruits of it's victory: IE has grown staid in recent years as the competition has vanished. But it's still the best browser, barely. If Mozilla can improve its reliability and site compatibility, I would have no problem recommending that product over IE to any user. But for now, it's a toss-up, and one that individual users will have to weigh carefully. The safe choice, of course, is IE, but Mozilla's tabbed browsing and pop-up window removal features make this release worth looking at. I strongly recommend that you look into this option.

Sadly, I can't honestly recommend Opera to anyone. It's not free, unless you settle for an ad-injected version, and it's most notable features--an MDI option and its configurable UI--are already available in Mozilla, which is completely free. Opera also lacks a true email client, though one could arguably use Outlook Express of course.

I use IE every day for various reasons, and I suspect that most SuperSite readers will as well. But you do have a choice, and I recommend you exercise that right and at least examine the competition.

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