NY Times wrote:
Custom Tailor a Web Browser Just for You
By PETER WAYNER
Published: January 27, 2005
IT used to be that Internet Explorer, the one-size-fits-all Web browser bundled with every copy of Microsoft Windows, was enough for most people. It worked well and cost nothing. Who needed anything else?
That attitude is fading these days as consumers begin to realize that other browsers offer more features, better security and greater freedom. Bells and whistles, perhaps, but some of them can be surprisingly useful.
The number of competitors to Internet Explorer is surprisingly large and diverse. The most commonly mentioned alternatives are Mozilla and its cousin, the recently released Firefox 1.0, two browsers descended from Netscape, the early Internet company that is now part of AOL. Firefox is a Web browser pure and simple. Mozilla uses the same basic core (known as Gecko) and adds tools for reading e-mail, chatting and composing Web pages.
Both are open source tools freely distributed and subject to modification by programmers worldwide.
If you are considering making the leap to a different browser, there are other choices, too. A Norwegian company, Opera, is selling its browser (though a free version that displays advertising is available as well). Apple has Safari, which builds on one called Konqueror, from the world of Linux.
If that's not enough to choose from, there are dozens of browsers out there like Amaya and Dillo that cater mainly to people with particular interests ("Star Trek" fans, for example).
There are also hybrids like Netcaptor, Phaseout and Avant that use Internet Explorer's core and add new features. Microsoft encourages software developers to revise and extend Internet Explorer, and maintains a catalog of such offerings at http://www.windowsmarketplace.com
. Some, like Netcaptor, which offers a popular feature called tabbed browsing and sells for $30, cost extra, but many are free.
This mix-and-match nature is echoed by Mozilla and Firefox, which also help users create their own features, known as extensions. There is a large collection of extensions at the Mozilla update site (update.mozilla.org), including tools that add weather forecasts to the margins of the Web browser, let you control the music playing in the background, or make it easy to look up a word in a dictionary.
In general, all of these browsers display the images and text from Web sites in much the same way. (There are some exceptions, mainly because some Web designers do not test their sites on all browsers. In cases where the layout is mangled or the page simply behaves oddly, the solution may be to use another browser.) Which one is right for you may come down to personality, aesthetics, security concerns and your work environment. Here are some of the major distinguishing characteristics.
One of the most popular new browser features displays multiple Web pages behind different tabs. The idea is so simple - it is similar to the tabbed dividers in a binder - that it might not seem like much of an innovation, but devotees wonder how they got along without it. A set of tabs at the top or bottom of the window allows you to switch among open pages.
The big advantage comes when browsing Web sites with many links, like the headlines on newspaper sites. If you hold down a key - usually Control - and click on interesting links, the browser will load the stories in pages behind the one you are reading. By the time you are done skimming the main page, the images and text for the next stories will be ready for reading. Clicking on the correct tab takes you there instantly.
Opera was one of the first to offer tabs; now Mozilla and Firefox do. Internet Explorer does not offer the feature, but it can be purchased by installing Netcaptor.
Web search is another area in which browser makers have sought to distinguish themselves. Nearly everyone relies on search engines like Google, so browser designers have tried to make this job as painless as possible. In Firefox, Opera and Safari, there is a search field at the top of the main browser window next to the field holding the address of the site you're visiting. Type in search terms and hit return, and the results appear immediately. There is no need to go to the search engine's main page.
Opera takes this one step further and offers other fields for a price search of stores or a direct search of Amazon. Mozilla has a special sidebar dedicated to displaying the search results where you can see them while you browse through the recommended Web sites in the main part of the window.
Internet Explorer users can get some of the same capabilities with a third-party toolbar from Google (toolbar.google.com). Firefox enthusiasts have duplicated the Google toolbar for Firefox (addons.mozilla.org).
Security and Privacy
The last year has been difficult for the team responsible for the security of Internet Explorer. There has been a stream of reports of loopholes and backdoors in the Microsoft browser that could expose users to data theft or the loss of control over their computers. Microsoft has dutifully fixed the holes, but some computer professionals have observed that fewer such holes affect other browsers.
Some of these professionals suggest that users could increase their security by choosing another browser and that alternatives are built with more attention to detail.
The authors of Mozilla, for instance, argue that contributions from the open-source community help eliminate loopholes. Microsoft, by contrast, maintains tight control over Internet Explorer and relies on its own programmers to fix problems.
(Others counter this by pointing out that all software is flawed and that attackers choose Internet Explorer because it is dominant. If other browsers become more popular, the argument goes, they will become targets.)
Blocking outside attacks is just part of the challenge. Many Web browsers help users by storing information like addresses, passwords and lists of recently visited Web sites. In the past, clearing this information out of your computer required navigating to several menus, making it harder for people to use public machines, share home machines or donate them to charities.
Apple's Safari was one of the first Web browsers to offer a single button, prominently displayed, that gets rid of stored information. Mozilla, Firefox and others now incorporate similar cleanup features.
Safari, Mozilla and other browsers also offer compact tools for examining and, if you want to, deleting the small tracking files called cookies that are stored on computers by Web sites. Mozilla's (also found under Tools, Options, Privacy), for instance, lets the user select from among various policies for managing cookies and also examine the data hidden inside them. This is one area where Microsoft has been a leader, and Internet Explorer offers an extensive system for cookie management.
Many browsers are adding features that give users some power to customize the display of Web sites. Opera's extensive View menu will soon include a feature known as Fit to Window that will automatically shrink a page that is too big to fit on your screen until there is no need to scroll to see it. If this leaves some parts too small, another feature lets you zoom in on one region.
Opera also lets users substitute their own layout guides for pages known as Cascading Style Sheets. This powerful feature can create outlines, change colors, eliminate large images and give general control over the look of the page.
Safari, Mozilla and Firefox take a more limited approach and let you change the size of the fonts used to render the page, a nice feature if the fine print is a bit too fine. Holding down the control key while pressing the plus or minus key activates this feature.
The new browsers also offer tools to block parts of Web sites. Opera, Firefox, Mozilla, Safari and others can prevent a Web site from opening new windows, which often contain advertisements.
There are hundreds of other tweaks and enhancements fighting for attention. The open platform offered by many of the browsers encourages any programmer to convert an idea into a working bit of code.
Some of these enhancements are practical. MapIt, an extension for Firefox, for example, lets you select an address on one page and immediately find a map of that location.
Some are fun. One called Gnusto lets you play games in Firefox.
And some cannot be classified. If you want to track the current color of the threat level announced by the Department of Homeland Security, one extension for Firefox will monitor the announcements and display an icon in the margins.