Web wars

From a near-monopoly position, Microsoft is losing out to a new breed of internet browsers. So how do the alternatives rate? Rhodri Marsden brings you the lowdown

Of all the programs that sit on our computers, we surely take web browsers for granted more than any other. They may be given away free of charge, but they are exceptional feats of programming skill that give us access to untold information. They are as integral to the computing experience as the mouse and keyboard.

Over the past 10 years, battles have raged between the companies behind these browsers in an effort to increase their market share, but this hasn't always been to the benefit of the end user. Only recently have we really started to reap the rewards of competition, with a genuine choice of tools to click our way through cyberspace.

Back in the mid-1990s, when the notion of watching an internet animation of a singing dog was still the stuff of a madman's dreams, the Netscape browser was by far the most popular on both PC and Macintosh. Web pages were simple affairs with basic graphic and text layouts. Delighted by the fact that it worked at all, our expectations of a rich multimedia experience weren't high.

Netscape did the job perfectly adequately, and even in 1997, two years after Microsoft launched its first version of Internet Explorer, Netscape users still outnumbered Explorer users by four to one. But the tide turned when Microsoft integrated Explorer more deeply within the Windows operating system, meaning that if you owned a PC, you'd inevitably be using Microsoft's browser.

During this period, Netscape battled furiously against its faster, more feature-rich competitor as they both regularly released updated versions. This rush to stay competitive led to the phenomenon known as "feature creep" where the need to stay distinctive and ahead of the pack began to compromise the software itself. Both programs ended up crawling with bugs, and browsing anything other than the simplest pages could be tricky; web designers would often use buttons saying "Best viewed in Netscape" or "Optimised for Internet Explorer" to ensure that we could view the sites as intended.

Eventually, the power and resources of Microsoft almost wiped Netscape off the map, and by 2002 Explorer was being used by 96 per cent of net surfers - even though Microsoft lost the much publicised court case against the US Department of Justice, which centred on this very monopoly.

With Explorer dominant, all web pages tended to be written with that browser in mind, and this reduced the pressure on Microsoft to update the program. Indeed, until a preview release of Explorer 7.0 was made available for download a few weeks ago, there hadn't been a substantial upgrade since version 5.5, way back in July 2000. But, in the interim, plans were afoot over at Netscape. The code of the original program had been released publicly as "open source", meaning that anyone was free to study it and suggest improvements. It ended up being substantially rewritten, and in 2004 a lightweight version was released under the name Firefox.

Google's success had shown that the bloated, feature-heavy internet experience wasn't necessarily what people were after, and that simplicity was the key. Jettisoning bells and whistles in favour of sleek design and fast operation became the new goal - not just for Firefox, but also for the new Norwegian offering Opera, and Apple's Safari. All these pretenders now offered tabbed browsing - where multiple web pages can quickly be switched between in the same window - and the ability to read RSS feeds, so users are notified when certain sites are updated, while that updated content is pulled in automatically. People started to switch from Explorer in huge numbers.

The biggest issue that has drawn people away, however, is the number of reported security risks of using Explorer. With so many people using one piece of software to connect computers to the outside world, exposing flaws in that software and gaining control of people's computers for malicious ends has become something of a hobby for bored geeks.

Microsoft has been criticised for its slow, almost reluctant responses to these attacks, while similar weaknesses in Firefox have been patched almost immediately, mainly because of the open source nature of the program and the large number of people willing to work on solving the problem. Mozilla, the organisation now behind Firefox, offers a $500 (£280) bounty for anyone pointing out security flaws in the software, and have paid out on a number of occasions.

As alternative browsers become more popular, there will be more incentive for criminals to search for flaws in their code, but Mozilla's open style of policing has led many to trust in Firefox. In some countries, its market share has reached 40 per cent. Globally, however, Internet Explorer is still the daddy, even if it's largely because the average PC user hasn't spotted that alternatives are available.

On the Macintosh platform, Safari is now bundled with the operating system, performing very well and inspiring fierce loyalty; Microsoft will be hoping to replicate this success when Explorer 7.0 is properly launched later this year. But, for now, the other options for the PC user are definitely worth exploring.

Microsoft Internet Explorer

LATEST VERSION

6.0 (released in August 2004)

REQUIREMENTS

PC running Windows 98 or later.

HISTORY

By far the most-used browser in the world, although its share has declined since its 2002 peak of 96 per cent. The Mac version was recently discontinued.

SECURITY

The Danish computer security firm Secunia currently reports 20 vulnerabilities in the program that can compromise its security.

PROS

Most websites are still designed with Explorer users in mind, so there are few compatibility problems.

CONS

It's 20 months since the last upgrade, so it is lagging behind in terms of features. A pre-release of version 7.0 has recently been made available to address this.

Mozilla Firefox

LATEST VERSION

1.5.0.2 (April 2006)

REQUIREMENTS

PC running Windows 98 or later; Macintosh running OS X 10.2 or later.

HISTORY

First launched in November 2004, the number of users has boomed in the past six months; it is now estimated to have a 10 per cent market share.

SECURITY

Four vulnerabilities are reported by Secunia. Patches from Mozilla tend to be made available very quickly.

PROS

Hugely customisable; extensions can be downloaded, ranging from advertisement blockers to weather forecasters.

CONS

It can feel more sluggish to use than the rest of the new wave of browsers.

Opera

LATEST VERSION

8.54 (April 2006)

REQUIREMENTS

PC running Windows 95 or later; Macintosh running OS X; versions available for many other platforms.

HISTORY

Started life as a low-key Norwegian research project, but the popularity of the "Mini" version of Opera on mobile phones has raised its profile.

SECURITY

No vulnerabilities reported.

PROS

Compact piece of software that claims to be "the fastest browser on earth"; you can customise the interface with downloadable "skins".

CONS

Suffers more than other browsers from incompatibility with certain websites.

Safari

LATEST VERSION

2.0.3 (March 2006)

REQUIREMENTS

Macintosh running OS X 10.4.

HISTORY

First released in June 2003 as Apple's answer to the dominance of Internet Explorer; is now bundled with Mac OS X.

SECURITY

One non-critical vulnerability reported by Secunia.

PROS

Efficient and speedy; has seamless integration with other parts of the Mac OS.

CONS

Doesn't offer the array of extensions that Firefox users have at their fingertips.

Netscape

LATEST VERSION

8.1 (January 2006)

REQUIREMENTS

PC running Windows 98 or later; latest version not yet available for Mac.

HISTORY

Has suffered a slow decline in popularity since its dominance in the mid-1990s, but has now been completely rewritten.

SECURITY

One non-critical vulnerability reported by Secunia.

PROS

It has both the Firefox and Explorer rendering engines built in, so it should in theory be compatible with all websites.

CONS

Some say Netscape's use of these two engines means it inherits the security risks of both.

Shiira

LATEST VERSION

1.2.2 (March 2006)

REQUIREMENTS

Macintosh running OS X 10.3.9.

HISTORY

A Japanese open-source project, using the same engine as Safari (so web pages will look identical) but attempting to add features not found in Apple's browser.

SECURITY

Not currently monitored by Secunia.

PROS

Many neat features, including private browsing, which is useful for shared computers, and a customisable interface.

CONS

Documentation currently only available in Japanese.

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