For the first time in years, energy and resources are being poured into browsers, the ubiquitous programs for accessing content on the Web. Credit for this trend—a boon to consumers—goes to two parties. The first is Google (GOOG), whose big plans for the Chrome browser have shaken Microsoft out of its competitive torpor and forced the software giant to pay fresh attention to its own browser, Internet Explorer. Microsoft all but ceased efforts to enhance IE after it triumphed in the last browser war, sending Netscape to its doom. Now it's back in gear.
There's also the European Union to thank. Starting this month, Brussels will require PC makers to give customers who buy new computers in Europe more freedom to choose. Under this plan, part of an antitrust settlement with Microsoft, purchasers will be presented with a screen at startup listing a dozen browsers in random order.
You don't have to be European, or even to have just purchased a new PC, to download these free programs and start exploring. When you do, there a few things you should keep in mind, especially regarding security and privacy.
Every company trumpets its strengths in security, but the term "secure browser" is a bit like "safe cigarette." Just months after releasing the latest version of Internet Explorer with a heavy emphasis on its security features, for example, Microsoft acknowledged that the hackers in China who targeted Google made use of an IE 6 security lapse.
Privacy is no more dependable. All browsers offer "inprivate" or "incognito" modes, but for the most part such settings only seek to prevent people who might look at your computer from seeing the sites you have browsed; they don't stop those sites from keeping records of your visits.
It's important to keep in mind why companies give their browsers away for free. Chrome, for instance, is a key part of Google's strategy to get computer users comfortable with so-called cloud computing. The idea is for everyone to spend less money and time on programs they license from software companies (Microsoft, say), and rely more on data and services such as Google Docs, which reside on servers and storage systems on the Net.
Described this way, Chrome—which is available in versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux— sounds like a stalking horse to make us all dependent on Google's own ad-driven services. Guess what? It is! But for Google's plans to work, Chrome has to be good. And it is. The program is fast, takes up little space on your hard drive, and rests lightly atop your computer's operating system. These are fine things, from a security standpoint, and should make Chrome attractive to corporate tech administrators as well as civilians.
Mac users should have no problem choosing a browser. The best one is Apple's own program, Safari, and it comes with every Mac. (Microsoft got into antintrust trouble for doing this with IE; presumably, Apple gets away with it because its market share is so much smaller.) Safari is also available in a Windows version, but I still seem to run into too many Web sites that haven't taken the trouble to make themselves Windows-Safari-friendly.
When working in Windows, I like to use Mozilla Firefox, a descendant of Netscape. Maintained by an open-source community, Firefox is available for PCs, Macs, and Linux systems, and is the second-most-used browser after Internet Explorer. The program benefits from a well-developed ecosystem that includes many thousands of add-ons for everything from speeding up YouTube downloads to StumbleUpon, which helps you discover and share Web sites that match your interests.
Opera is also a good choice. It's from the Norwegian company Opera Software, which has been around since the earliest days of the Web, and is available in Mac, Linux, and PC versions. And of course, there's Internet Explorer itself. The current version, IE 8, was released last year with a slew of enhancements, and Microsoft has promised that the next version will be faster and even harder for bad guys to hack into.
Each browser has legions of fans, and I'm not dumb enough to try to tell you which is best for you. I don't want all that hate mail from devotees of the other browsers whom I offend. What I'll say is, this is the perfect time to break the shackles of habit and try something different. Better still, try them all.
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Aid for the Ignorati
What's the biggest factor keeping computer users from switching browsers? Software makers other than Microsoft say it's ignorance. To many people, that big "e" icon for Microsoft's Internet Explorer simply means "the Internet," and they aren't aware of the alternatives. To clarify, Google has created a Web site (http://www.whatbrowser.org) with links to five browsers—Microsoft's and Google's among them—along with a video, benchmark tests, and more.
To check out the site, go to http://bx.businessweek.com/google-chrome/reference/
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