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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Firefox blazes new Web browsing ground; fuels up rivals

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hiawatha Bray
June 19, 2008

Your new Internet browser is ready - several of them, actually. They're all free, so take your pick.

The Mozilla Foundation, whose Firefox browser has already snared over 18 percent of the world's Web surfers, has just introduced its latest upgrade, Firefox 3. For a nonprofit outfit, Mozilla can really sling the hype. The foundation practically dared us to visit getfirefox.com on Tuesday and download the new browser, in an effort to set a world record for the most file downloads in a single day. Suckers that we are, at least 7 million of us fell for it.

And what did we get in return? A darn good browser.

Firefox caught fire in 2004, when Microsoft Corp. hadn't upgraded its Internet Explorer browser in three years. IE 6, as techies called it, was so famously buggy that the federal government's data security experts began urging people not to use it. Suddenly, Firefox looked especially attractive - free, feature-rich, and far more secure than Explorer. Within a year, users had downloaded 100 million copies. By including a search window linked to the popular Google search engine, the Mozilla Foundation began raking in millions in advertising revenue. Microsoft's near-monopoly on browsers was gone.

Still, Firefox wasn't perfect. In 2007, security software maker Symantec found twice as many security bugs in Firefox as Microsoft's newest browser, IE 7. Firefox 3 aims to squash the bugs and to deliver a bunch of new features.

Best of the lot is a new address bar that begins searching for websites even as you type. Start typing an address you frequently visit and Firefox 3 will display links to pages from that site that you viewed in the past.

Firefox 3 has also buffed up its file download system. New files are automatically scanned for viruses, and you can see the Internet domain that's providing the file, a handy way to avoid downloads from suspicious sources. Also, there's a pause button to temporarily halt the download.

Mozilla engineers say they have tidied up the software so it runs faster and uses less memory. My own cursory inspection suggests Firefox is still a bit of a memory hog. But the new version is unquestionably faster than its predecessor, with start-up taking only about half the time.

It's good stuff, and reason enough to consider dumping IE if you haven't already. But Firefox isn't the only alternative. Opera Software is a Norwegian company that makes most of its money building browsers for cellphones. But its free desktop browser, available for PCs, Macs, and Linux computers at opera.com, is a fine piece of software.

It's got geek-oriented features that rivals can't touch, like built-in support for the popular BitTorrent file-swapping protocol, and an Internet Relay Chat client that lets you hang out in chatrooms worldwide. But Opera has goodies for the casual user, too, such as a built-in e-mail client - a good substitute for products like Outlook Express - and support for "widgets." These are mini-programs that do useful things, like display the latest news, weather, and sports scores.

Despite all its features, Opera runs like lightning. On my machine, it's at least as fast as Firefox and uses less memory. If you're checking out alternative browsers, put Opera on the list.

Windows users might want to add Apple Inc.'s Safari browser as well. Apple created Safari for its Mac computers, and also puts a downsized version on its popular iPhone. Earlier this year, Apple unleashed a Windows version of Safari, and began installing it on users' machines when they updated their iTunes software. After complaints from Windows users, Apple began asking for permission before installing Safari.

Microsoft last month urged Windows users to avoid Safari because of a bug that could let bad guys sneak through the browser and install malicious software. Apple admitted the bug exists, but said it was no big deal. Neither is Safari. It's fast-running and easy to use, but brings nothing new to the table.

To its credit, Microsoft has learned a few lessons from the surging popularity of Firefox. In 2006, it released Internet Explorer 7, a browser that fixed the worst security problems of the previous version, and copied some of the nicer features of Firefox, like tabbed browsing and a search window that lets users choose from multiple search engines. If Internet Explorer had been this good in 2004, the original Firefox would have been dead on arrival. Yet only about 45 percent of the world's browsers use IE 7. Nearly 30 percent still run IE 6 or older Microsoft browsers. If you're in this group, you can transform your browsing experience with a simple upgrade to IE 7.

It took Microsoft five years to deliver IE 7; it won't repeat that mistake. Development of IE 8 is well underway, and a beta version offers some appealing new gimmicks. I like the WebSlice feature, which lets users view selected portions of a Web page in a small window. Use it to view news headlines or track an auction on eBay without opening a new Web page. It's a handy little gadget, and a reminder that Microsoft engineers can be pretty creative when they have to be. And thanks to a welcome surge of browser competition, they have to be.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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