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Time to switch browsers?

May 14, 2003 10:59 IST

What do alternatives like Opera and Mozilla offer that Internet Explorer doesn't?

Here's a surprise. There's more to surfing than Internet Explorer (IE). And, here's a question: Why would anyone want an alternative browser? For a piece of software that has been around for ages, IE hasn't changed much. From the ten-year old Mosaic to the latest version, functionality has largely been restricted to roughly the same set of buttons (back, forward, stop and home) and the same drab interface. Innovation, apparently, isn't a priority anymore, nor will it be without a threat to the browser's dominance.

 Alternative browsers such as Opera and the derivatives from the Mozilla codebase have the same buttons. Installing them takes time too. Apart from a few lean distributions, almost each of them weighs in at anything upwards of 3 MB (Non-Java version of Opera). So, why ditch the omnipresent IE?


Better Security

For a start, there's the issue of security. From the stupidest oversight to really nasty ones, bugs in browsers have for long made malicious hackers a happy lot. The level of the vulnerability differs from browser to browser and those like IE -- that are seamlessly integrated into the operating system and its programs -- suffer the most. Case in point is how Windows Explorer tends to crash in the event of an IE crash.


As IE is the most widely used browser today, it is also targeted the most. This, associated with popularity and a rapidly growing bug list, necessitates frequent upgrades and patches. Service packs -- often huge and complete version upgrades (example: from version 5.x to version 6) --  tip the scales at anywhere between 11 MB and 30 MB, depending on the selected components.

Alternative browsers like Opera and Mozilla fare only marginally better on bug-free installations. Where they score is that fixes for these bugs are usually released much faster than those for IE.


Cascading Style Sheets
A revolution that is quietly sweeping the Internet at present is the concept of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). CSS is, basically, a set of specifications that tells the browser where and how to display elements. Earlier, this was done using tables and font specifications in HTML that had severe limitations. CSS gives designers greater flexibility and capabilities in creating Web pages, and also significantly reduces file size. The catch, though, is that the specification for CSS is still under development and every browser implements it differently. This often results in inconsistencies in the way a site is displayed on different browsers.

Apart from its latest version, the implementation of CSS on older IE editions is quite buggy. Opera has a history of adhering to standards and arguably renders CSS pages in the best manner.


RSS Feeds

Perhaps, the strongest case for alternative browsers is made by Mozilla and its XPToolkit Project that allows users to develop and extend the browser with their own programs. A huge number of these cost nothing, while adding considerably to productivity and convenience. One such program is Newsmonster, a RSS feed reader written for Mozilla. Almost every other browser suite has missed out on this extremely useful feature.

RSS feeds are files in XML format that can be read by devices or software designed to interpret them. Scanning your favourite Web sites through these feeds is incredibly convenient and saves a lot of time and bandwidth.


Tabbed Browsing
Another important feature that IE misses out on, and one that is adopted by almost all alternative browsers, is tabbed browsing. This enables you to open multiple Web pages within the same instance of the browser, thus resulting in a reduction of clutter on the desktop and also a leaner memory footprint compared to IE.


Even with its latest version, IE renders web pages, especially ones that have a lot of nested tables, far too slowly. Opera comes up trumps on this count, while Mozilla canters in a distant second.


If there is one issue of greater concern to users than pop-ups, it's a lack of privacy. Of course, there are a host of tools (both free and paid) that promise to guard your privacy, but, for most users, they are too difficult to configure and use. While IE fails on this count, alternative browsers come with features that can root out most nuisances. Opera even has a 'Quick Preferences' drop down menu that allows users to set various levels of privacy in less than three clicks.


Reasons enough to make that switch?

Shyam S