Back in July, the Computer Emergency Response Team in America - now an arm of the US government - noted a security weakness in Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Among the suggestions CERT made on how to avoid hackers exploiting this weakness was simply to change browser.
That advice has become a mantra. Experts such as Kelly Martin at Securityfocus.com now tell their corporate clients that, for 2005, they need "a plan and timeline to replace Internet Explorer... [with its] dozens and dozens of security flaws" (www.securityfocus.com/printable/columnists/284). When corporations are being urged to change, consumers definitely should.
But to what? In July, about 95 per cent of web surfers used IE. Yet there have always been alternatives. There's the paid-for Opera (which on Windows also handles e-mail). There's Netscape, and Mozilla. More recently, offshoots of the latter have matured: a "pure" browser called Firefox, and a mail reader, Thunderbird. Both recently hit that crucial "1.0" release: they're ready to play in the big leagues.
Unlike Microsoft's offerings (IE and Outlook Express), these are developed by open source methods, so there's no company behind them. Both are free. And both do things their Microsoft rivals cannot - and will not until 2006 at least.
They also do them more securely. While no software offers "total" security (nothing in life is totally "safe"), Firefox and Thunderbird are not the targets of as many hackers as IE and Outlook Express.
Firefox has enjoyed much of the attention so far, with about 11 million downloads. You'll find it at www.mozilla.org/firefox (the 11Mbyte download will strain any dial-up; you may need a friend with broadband and a CD burner, or a magazine cover disc).
Firefox will happily import your IE Favorites. And then the fun begins. It has a built-in pop-up advert blocker (enabled by default). Type some words into the right-hand space in the window's top toolbar and a search on those terms will be done by Google, or Yahoo, or eBay, or Amazon.com, or any search engine you add. "Tabbed browsing" lets you open a new background window beside the page you're reading, so you can finish what you were first looking at. I wrote about this in March 2003; it's scary that most people still haven't experienced its usefulness.
Firefox's most useful and forward-looking feature is "Live Updates", known more geekily as RSS syndication. View the BBC news pages with Firefox, for example, and in the bottom-right corner you'll see an orange "echo" symbol. Drag that to your toolbar, and when you click on it later, you'll get a list of the latest headlines from that page. Hundreds of sites can be dipped into this way.
It all leaves IE in the dust. And, interestingly, IE's market share has fallen steadily since June, and now stands at 88.9 per cent; still a big majority, but the trend matters. Given how easy Firefox is to install, and that using it removes you from the line of fire aimed at IE users, it's hard to think why one shouldn't change. (Some sites "insist" on IE, but you can download an "extension" to Firefox so it pretends to be IE; most sites happily accept this.) It already wallops a product the world's biggest software company has been developing for a decade - and it can only get better.
Thunderbird (mozilla.org/ thunderbird), also deserves attention. It can import mail and settings from Outlook Express, Eudora or its predecessor Mozilla (and Netscape). It has the usual "three pane" layout (mailboxes, subject lines, message). But then the jet zooms off the runway. Built-in "autolearning" spam filtering? Spellchecking? Got those. And you can search your mail (which in OE requires the Lookout add-on) and then save the result as a new mailbox, which will be updated when a new message comes along that matches the criteria. Plus, there's another built-in RSS reader, a newsgroup reader, an address book system and a clean interface.
Firefox and Thunderbird are just the sort of Christmas present you need: forward-looking features, more secure, and elegant in design and use. If you're still using IE and Outlook Express, change now. And they're free (ignoring the download cost).