Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Browser Wars

Recently, there's been talk about the return of the Browser Wars. Internet Explorer has been the subject of a lot of criticism for it's vulnerability, with even the US Government's Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) recommending that users consider switching browsers. (Ok, to be honest, they listed that as the last update, after applying Security Updates, downloading the latest Antivirus Software, etc.) There's also been a lot of media coverage of alternative browsers. One result is that downloads of these browsers have increased sharply. This article in Wired News discusses how Mozilla has gained from IE's woes.
Downloads of Mozilla and Firefox -- an advanced version of Mozilla -- spiked the day CERT's warning was released, and demand has continued to grow. According to Chris Hofmann, engineering director at the Mozilla Foundation, formed last July to promote the development, distribution and adoption of Mozilla Web applications, downloads of the browsers hit an all-time high on Thursday, from the usual 100,000 or so downloads on a normal day to more than 200,000.

Hofmann said the Mozilla team wasn't surprised when CERT issued its warning.

"Mozilla and Firefox downloads have increased steadily since last fall, with the Firefox user base doubling every few months, as more people seem to have reached their threshold level of frustration dealing with problems with IE and Windows, and have found the Mozilla software a good solution to solving those problems," said Hofmann. "CERT's recommendation is just a reflection of the trend we have seen for quite some time."

I'm thrilled that people are beginning to realise what a terrible piece of software Internet Explorer is. It's slow, bloated, doesn't follow standards, and has more holes than Swiss cheese! What I'm depressed about, though, is that people don't seem to have heard about Opera. Everyone talks about Mozilla and Firefox and praises them for their innovative features (particularly tabbed browsing and mouse gestures). These were both Opera innovations! Even normally technically aware people like regulars at Slashdot don't get this. There has recently been a flurry of Slashdot stories on browsers (the two most recent). The vast majority of comments, though, deal only with Firefox. Commenters say that they have long wished for a browser to have certain features and hope that Firefox will incorporate them soon. Opera already implements most of them! Also, Gmail doesn't support Opera!

Opera seems (to me) to be both technically superior and have a far better User Interface, besides being almost infinitely customisable. I'm not alone, PC World voted Opera best browser of 2004. (And that was version 7.23; 7.50, the latest version is even better.) So why don't more people talk about (and use) Opera? There's one obvious reason to prefer Firefox; it's Free Software, whereas Opera is not. (Note to my non-tech readers: Free Software means free as in "free speech", meaning that you can view the source code, modify and redistribute it, not as in "free beer", meaning that you don't have to pay.) Both Opera and Firefox cost nothing, though the free version of Opera has text ads. (The paid version, which costs $39, does not.) The ads appear in a narrow band on the screen, though, and they are always relevant. I actually like them, which I never thought I'd say about ads. That annoys some people who don't want ads and don't want to pay, either. Firefox allows them to have their cake and eat it too. The ads aren't a big deal, though; in version 7.50, they're absolutely unobtrusive.

To many people the Freedom of software is important, and you have to respect that. If you don't want to use proprietary software, by all means use Firefox. It's one of the better options there is. But many people don't care about Free software, and just want the best software they can get. Do yourself a favour; try Opera today. If I haven't convinced you, and you're still running IE, at least check out Firefox. It's nearly as good, and both browsers are miles ahead of Internet Explorer in terms of features and security. In addition, they're smaller, faster (both to start up and to load web pages, especially on a slow connection like a typical Indian dial-up), and standards-compliant. Just get as far away from IE as you can!

Note: Both Opera and Firefox are cross-platform; they run on Windows, Linux, Mac OS, and many others.

Disclaimer: I strongly support the Free Software Foundation, think that the GPL is a Very Good Thing (tm), and use a lot of Free Software myself. However, honesty compels me to admit that Firefox isn't, in my opinion, the best browser out there right now; Opera is. I wrote this post because I felt it was unfair for such a great product to receive so little attention.


Sean said...

C'mon, Firefox has extensions! Like plugins, extensions make the browser infinitely powerful. Is firefox missing a new tab button somewhere? Someone made an extension for it. I have one extension called Adblock, that lets me block (with * globs mind you), any element on the screen, including flash animations and other non-image scripts. True, Opera has a lot of included things but I use other programs for all those things.

Nitish said...

True, extensions make Firefox much more powerful; Adblock is a godsend. They also add to the bloat, though. Opera provides all the features of most Firefox extensions in a package smaller than Firefox alone.

Much more important, though, is that getting the extensions you want means spending considerable time searching for them and trying them out. On the other hand, the advantage is that you only get the extensions you want.

Where Opera scores is in providing these features by default. That means that a new convert from IE doesn't have to spend hours looking for extensions while simultaneously figuring out a new browser. Also, one can't expect the new user to even know about a feature like mouse gestures, and so he won't download the extension.

That's really the target audience for this recommendation; a long-term Windows user who has never used anything but IE and/or may barely know that IE is not 'the Internet.' Opera (the company) has put a lot of effort into making the conversion easy and completely painless. Firefox, on the other hand, is a typical Free Software product; you get exactly what you want, but you have to put in some effort to get it that way. I'm not knocking that approach; it's perfect for a typical geek, giving him the power he wants. For a newbie, though, it's not the best route.