Your grandmother's guide to web browsers

Originally written for eVent! magazine [ep] on 03/16/06.

Today we’re going to talk about web browsers.  You might think that web browsers are not very sexy but you would be wrong.  If you’ve been using Microsoft’s Internet Explorer all your internet life then maybe it is time to look at a few other options.

What is a web browser?  Well the web browser is the program that you use to go onto the internet and “browse” around.  It’s the most common program you’ll use if you use the internet, and alongside your email client (for getting your emails) it’s pretty much how you’ll spend 90% of your time interacting with the internet.

So which browser is right for you?  I can’t say but if you’ve been living in a Microsoft Explorer world then maybe it’s time to check out some of these programs.

Internet Explorer 6, PC, www.microsoft.com/windows/ie

While Microsoft has released a Beta version, a test version, of Internet Explorer 7 most people are going to be using IE 6 or earlier since those would be the official releases.  In the beginning of the internet there were two web browsers, Microsoft’s and Netscape’s.  Netscape’s came first but the fact that Microsoft started bundling all of their Windows computers with their own web browser meant that Netscape’s days were numbered.  Today Internet Explorer is the most used browser, and if you’re on a Windows machine you will probably be using it unless you’ve gone out of your way to switch to something else. 

Explorer is generally less advanced then the competition, and it tends to be less safe and secure since there’s several well-publicized ways to use it to spread viruses through the internet.  IE isn’t a sure fire way to get a virus, since smart browsing can protect you from most things but it’s sort of like parking your car and never locking the doors.  IE 7 should fix some of that, but it’s still a ways off having an official release.

The advantage of Explorer is that since it’s by far the most popular browser on the net, most web pages are formatted for it and will work on an up to date version.  The disadvantage, aside from the previously noted safety aspects, is that it’s well behind the rest technology wise and Microsoft no longer supports the version for the Mac.

Firefox 1.5, PC/Mac, www.mozilla.com/firefox

When Microsoft sent Netscape to the big corporate graveyard, the developers behind the web’s first popular browser released the code to the world, and let the open source community have a go at it.

Essentially a bunch of hippies with computers, the open source community worked with the code releasing a whole bunch of different browsers none of which were very good until the Mozilla people got a hold of it and released Firefox.  Firefox is now the second most popular browser, and it’s still open source meaning that anyone can look at the program’s code and alter it and use their altered version to release a different web browser.  Open source programs tend to be more secure because since everyone on the internet can see the code if they want to, people can point out problems and security flaws which can be fixed before hackers get around to creating viruses and programs to exploit them.

So it’s more secure, and it tends to be a lot faster on most machines than Internet Explorer.  Made for both Windows and Mac, its coolest feature is the ability to add extensions onto the program giving it a whole range of new features.  There’s an extension that lets you blog right from your browser, one that allows you to view your Flickr photos at the touch of a button, one that lets you control what’s playing in iTunes from the browser and so many more.  These extensions are small simple programs that attach themselves to Firefox and add these new features.

Firefox also has a bucket load of themes, which you can download and change the appearance of the browser.  Themes aren’t strictly useful, but it’s an easy way to sex up your screen without downloading pornography.

Opera 8.5, PC/Mac/Mobile Devices, www.opera.com

Opera is another spin off from the Netscape code, but one that’s gone in another direction than Firefox.  Up until this summer users had to pay for Opera, while Internet Explorer and Firefox have remained free.  Opera suffers from the fact that while it’s faster than Microsoft’s browser it’s not significantly faster than Firefox and has fewer features.

What Opera does have is mobile versions.  You can get Opera’s mobile browser for the Nintendo DS Gameboy system as well as a large number of cellular telephones. 

Safari 2, Mac, www.apple.com/safari

Apple’s entry into the world of web browsing brought Safari.  A slick program that’s designed to look like it’s at home among the rest of your Apple OSX it’s replaced Explorer as the most used web browser on the Mac and convinced Microsoft to give up trying to even compete. 

Safari has a few neat options that still are not in Explorer, even Explorer for Windows, such as tabbed browsing and live bookmarks that let you follow RSS feeds.  These options are also in Firefox, so if you’ve got a Mac it’s still worth checking out Firefox. 

Also worth mentioning for the Mac, though not enough to give it its own entry is the newly released Camino (www.caminobrowser.org) that is a fancy take on Firefox’s code to make it more Mac like.  Unlike Firefox however Camino however does not have the very useful ability to use extensions.