[The following column originally appeared in print in December 2006. I am republishing it as part of my continuing effort to maintain an archive of my published columns. Important note: I have not updated this since its original publication. While most of the sites remain as described, some may have changed. All information was current as of the date of original publication.]
The browser wars are back, and netizens everywhere are being asked to choose sides. With major upgrades released to the two leading Web browsers, the question for Web surfers is, “Which should get my allegiance, Internet Explorer 7 or Firefox 2.0?”
But even as the two browsers draw their battle lines, the differences between them become less and less clear. That said, Firefox still wins my vote as the most functional, configurable and secure browser available.
IE7 is Microsoft’s long-overdue, great leap forward in the battle for browser supremacy. When first released in 1995, IE was the upstart battling browser giant Netscape Navigator. IE won, but with Microsoft’s control of computer desktops, the fight was hardly fair. Even as IE’s audience grew, so did its reputation as bloated and insecure.
Meanwhile, the rebel force known as Firefox launched its version 1.0 in November 2004 and quickly gained ground. Built on an open-source platform that made it secure, lightweight and configurable, it established a loyal following among tekkies and other IE malcontents. As it continued to add innovative features such as tabbed browsing and RSS integration, its popularity grew.
So when Microsoft on Oct. 18 released its first major upgrade of IE since 2001, it was undoubtedly more than coincidental that Firefox followed six days later with its first major upgrade in two years. But if the battle lines were drawn, the warriors had become less distinguishable.
When a Firefox user first fires up the new IE7, the most striking feature, after its highly streamlined design, is its familiarity. Features new to IE – tabbed browsing, RSS support and integrated search bar – are old hat to Firefox. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, IE7 is a paean to its upstart rival.
To be fair, IE7 goes Firefox a step better in some respects, such as in its handling of tabs. Each open tab has a small button to the right that you can click to open another tab. Firefox requires you to go to the file menu to open a tab or to right click on a hyperlink and select “open link in new tab.” Even better in IE, with one click, a user can display all open tabs as thumbnails on a single page.
IE7 adds other nifty features its competitor lacks: page magnification (something the Opera browser has long offered), grouping of multiple tabs into a single bookmark, and improved printing of Web pages by automatically shrinking text to fit.
Perhaps the most significant improvements for this historically hole-plagued browser come in enhanced security. IE7 now offers one-step deletion of browsing history (like Firefox), phishing protection against scam Web sites, enhanced pop-up blocking and enhanced ActiveX blocking.
While IE’s leap from version 6 to version 7 is broad, Firefox’s change from 1.5 to 2.0 is more modest. Fans will say this is because Firefox was already well ahead. New features in version 2.0 include enhanced tab management, built-in spell checking, phishing protection, and session restore, which allows you to pick up your browsing where you left off if your system crashes.
Firefox was first to add an RSS reader, but now that both browsers have this feature, neither stands out. While the RSS readers in each are perfectly functional, neither offers the features of a dedicated reader such as FeedDemon. Given this, an advantage to Firefox is that it lets the user configure its RSS-subscription button to work with any Web service that handles RSS feeds, such as Bloglines or Newsgator. IE lacks this option.
Thanks to its open-source roots, Firefox has long benefited from a battalion of independent programmers writing small add-on programs to enhance its functionality. Hundreds of free add-ons are available for enhanced blogging, image browsing, searching, bookmarking, news reading and other purposes.
With version 7, IE now offers add-ons as well. Here, however, Firefox retains the upper hand. The selection of IE add-ons has yet to approach that of Firefox, and Firefox excels in the ease with which a user can find, install and remove add-ons.
For IE users, version 7 is a great leap forward that significantly improves its functionality and security. Anyone still using IE6 should waste no time in upgrading. (For Windows users with automatic update enabled, IE7 will install automatically.)
Firefox users, however, are likely to view IE7 as merely catching-up. Even though IE7 is now on a par with Firefox in many respects and even a bit ahead of it in some, it offers no strong reason to switch.
For Firefox users, the bottom line is security. Because its source code is open to public view, security holes are found and patched before they create a threat. IE’s source code remains closed. As long as that remains the case, Firefox will remain the more secure browser.