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Wed 14 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Return of the browser wars

Move over Internet Explorer and Navigator. Today there is a range of new browsers slugging it out.

Over a decade ago, a bitter ‘war' was raging on as terms such as ‘web-surfing' began to emerge in the English lexicon. Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator were slugging it out for supremacy over the browser share market and this competition resulted in both browsers adopting different standards.

For years, some sites were only Internet Explorer compliant while others were Netscape Navigator compliant.

Today, Netscape Navigator is not being further developed anymore, but there is a whole range of new and interesting browsers out there competing with Microsoft Internet Explorer for market share. This time, however, web-designers, web-developers and browser-developers are attempting to adopt a unified standard with the push towards over-arching web standards.

Whether you use Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Opera or Google Chrome; Windows reviews them all and tells you about some lesser known browsers that you might want to consider using such as Flock, Camino and Maxthon.

But before taking a look at them, it's interesting to take a look back in time to see how we arrived at the browser situation we have today.

Browser War I

Believe it or not, in mid-1995, America Online's (AOL's) Netscape Navigator was the dominant and most widely used web browser in the world. Microsoft, at the time, had only just licensed Mosaic as the basis of Internet Explorer 1.0, which was released as part of a Microsoft Windows 95 package in August 1995.

Microsoft Internet Explorer really began to take market dominance as version 2.0 of the browser was released by Microsoft as a free download three months after the August 1995 package release. The Internet Explorer software was available for all Windows users and companies for free.

In October 1997, Internet Explorer 4.0 was released and Internet Explorer 4.0 was integrated into the Windows operating system as well, and Microsoft allowed IE to remain free. At the time, the Netscape browser was free for home and education users but it was commercial software for businesses.

With Microsoft dominating the Operating Software landscape, it was only a matter of time before it would dominate the web browser market as well. The result was that the first browser war ended with Internet Explorer having no remaining serious competition concerning its market share.

Browser War II

After some time, Netscape open-sourced their browser code, which led to the formation of the Mozilla Foundation-a community-driven project to create a successor to Netscape. Development continued for years with little widespread adoption until a stripped-down browser-only version of the full suite was created, featuring new features such as tabbed browsing and a separate search bar.

The browser would eventually become known as Firefox. Mozilla Firefox 1.0 was released on 9 November 2004 and since then it has continued to gain an increasing share of the browser market.

At the end of March 2008 AOL stopped support for Netscape Navigator and, as of 2008, it has been estimated that Internet Explorer had 72% market share compared with Firefox's 20% and Safari's 6%, leaving Opera and all the others sharing the remaining 2%.

How the browsers stack up

So, how does one go about measuring how browsers stack up against one another? One could start with measuring the speed of browsers, but, in today's world, with computer processing speeds increasing rapidly, the differences among browser speeds can be minimal. Here at Windows, we've decided to compare and rate browsers on the following categories: Look (aesthetics), Ease-of-use, Security and Features. Microsoft Internet Explorer

Look and Ease-of-use: The one thing Internet Explorer has going for it is its look. It does have a clean look about the web pages with rounded off text and an easy-to-use navigational bar. Also, Internet Explorer is actually quite easy to use with icon links representing the browser's major features such as the favourites, RSS feeds and messenger.

Security: Because 90% of internet users use Microsoft Internet Explorer, you can expect that the browser will have a number of security vulnerabilities owing to hackers targeting bugs in the browser. According to Secunia (a security advisory site), Microsoft Internet Explorer has the most security vulnerabilities out of all browsers at the time of writing.

Features: Microsoft Internet Explorer has a range of interesting features, such as a pop-up blocker, phishing filter and the ability to even add add-ons such as Cooliris, the popular Piclens viewer.

Verdict: The ease of use of the browser and the fact that the browser is used widely means that most websites are designed with this browser in mind. However, the browser doesn't have a reputation as the fastest or safest browser, and Microsoft Internet Explorer will never stack up against Mozilla Firefox in terms of the variety of add-ons.

Mozilla Firefox

Look and Ease-of-use: Depending upon whether you use Windows OS or a Linux OS, Mozilla Firefox adapts its windows interface accordingly to match the style of the windows your OS uses. The font quality is not necessarily the same as Microsoft Internet Explorer, but pages still look good. Also, you can change the look of the browser according to a particular theme add-on, such as the NASA theme add-on, which displays a rocket taking off in the corner of the screen every time one navigates to a different website.

Security: Because Firefox is open source, communities of developers are out there to ensure that the browser maintains a high level of security. Any security hole that is discovered is quickly reported on and quickly dealt with. According to Secunia, Mozilla Firefox is one of the browsers that has the least security vulnerabilities at the time of writing.

Features: A major feature of Firefox is its ability to integrate a myriad of highly useful add-ons. From Stumbleupon to Firebug (for developers), to FoxyTunes and more, there are a range of add-ons that web-users can choose from. And the fact that third-party developers are developing add-ons means the browser will become more dynamic and varied in choice as time passes.

Opera

Look and Ease-of-use: Opera doesn't have the most aesthetically pleasing look of all the browsers. Maybe it's a subjective opinion, but the black-lined bar at the top is a bit of an eye-sore. Other than that, the ability to scroll web-pages using this browser seems really fast - it makes scrolling down web-pages a smooth experience.

Security: In terms of security, Opera seems to be relatively safe with regular updates. It also has a large community of developers and according to Secunia, Opera ranks as the safest web browser alongside Mozilla Firefox.

Features: Opera is not the most feature-rich web-browser in the world. It has the option of allowing users to add widgets, but these widgets seem to be more playful than useful. For example, a lot of the widgets are frivolous in nature such as the Torus widget (Tetris but in a 3D circle; if that makes sense) and the Aquarium widget. Having said this, some of the widgets are interesting, such as the browser security rater which lists the current number of security holes on the most widely used browsers.

Verdict: Opera is a browser that has initially been developed for the mobile market, but it has become more popular as a web browser. This browser is easy to use, quick and secure, but its functionality in terms of widgets seems limiting.

Safari

Look and Ease-of-use: Safari is obviously bundled with the Mac, but Microsoft users can also download and use the browser, and users will realise that the browser has that smooth Mac feel about it, with a smart-looking interface and smooth rounded features. The text visibility on this browser is also quite rounded, very similar to Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Security: Considering that there is an increasing number of Mac users using Safari, the browser could become a future target for hackers. However, according to Secunia, Safari is safer than Microsoft Internet Explorer and more risky to use than Mozilla Firefox and Opera.

Features: This browser does have some interesting plugins, such as 1Passwd that allows you to use one username and password for various sites. One downside with a lot of these plugins is price; just like many things with Apple, you have to pull out your wallet and pay up.

Verdict: A great looking and fast browser. But it's just a little disappointing that Apple has an obsession with having users pay for plugins. Google Chrome

Look and Ease-of-use: If you have a slower computer, you will find that Google Chrome will be the fastest browser on your computer. This is because Google Chrome uses very little memory to run. Google Chrome also has a sleek, minimalist look and feel to it that seems to be congruent with its speed. There's no ‘Google' search-bar as such, but one can use the navigation bar which serves as the Google search-bar on this browser.

Security: Google Chrome is in the process of coming out of beta version; so, it is a bit buggy and it does have loads of security fixes that need to be attended to. If Google Chrome never opens you up to security threats, then you might at some point experience a sudden collapse of your browser in the middle of a session owing to Chrome's ‘bugginess'.

Features: One downfall about the Google Chrome browser at this stage is that because it is new, it doesn't have many add-on features. But the browser does feature a built-in add on similar to that of Firefox's FireBug for web-developers, and the browser is set to have many more add-ons in the future.

The new standards

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is an international industry consortium that is tasked with creating new web standards. The W3C develops open specifications to enhance the interoperability of web-related products, which means ensuring that all web browsers display the web in as similar ways as possible.

The new web-standards include HTML 4.0 (HyperText Markup Language), XML 1.0 (Extensible Markup Language), XHTML 1.0 (a reformulation of HTML as an XML application), CSS (Cascading Style Sheets - a mechanism for changing the appearance of HTML or XML elements, by assigning styles to element types, self-defined classes of elements or individual instances) and DOM1 (allows the full power and interactivity of a scripting language, such as ECMAScript, the standardised version of JavaScript, to be exerted on a web page).

When a website meets all of these standards, the website is regarded as being 100% XHTML 1.0, 100% HTML or 100% CSS compliant. W3C has an online service that allows one to confirm that a website meets these standards.

The aim with these standards is to ensure that a browser war scenario never arises again. Yet, with many web-developers and designers ignoring web-standards, the reality is that it might still be some time before the browser wars officially come to an end.

Other browsers to take a look atFlock

Flock is regarded as the Social Network browser. Flock is focused on key innovations that help you stay connected with your favorite sites, people, media and content.

Camino

Camino is an open-source browser based on Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine and is clearly designed to be a simple, easy-to-use, yet fully functional browser. It looks and feels very similar to Safari and Firefox.

Maxthon

The Maxthon browser interface is quite cluttered, with a file menu, Address Bar, Favorites Bar and other toolbars, and stray icons near the top and bottom of the screen. The browser has many features and they need to fit somewhere, but you can customise the interface to cut down on the clutter.

OmniWeb

OmiWeb is the alternative to Safari for Mac users. Some of OmniWeb's best features include extensive ad-blocking, auto-saved Web browsing sessions and site-specific preferences. From the unique tab drawer to support for browsing Web pages using OS X's built-in Speech Recognition, OmniWeb's embrace of Mac-specific technologies wrapped in a clean and uncluttered interface makes the product a viable browser alternative.

Shiira

Shiira is a relatively new entrant to the Mac Web browser market. Like Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, Shiira is based on WebKit. The browser has a PageDock feature that provides the same functionality as tabbed browsing, but with complete thumbnails of every page that is opened.

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