Given the steady stream of security alerts associated with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, it should come as no surprise that many organisations and end users are actively looking at alternative browsers.
However, for many users Internet Explorer is so intricately bound with Windows and their experience of the Web that the idea of looking at an alternative fills them with dread. Primary questions are ‘will installing a new browser break Windows?’ and ‘how many sites will break or stop working without IE?’
High on the list of alternatives is the open-source Mozilla Firefox browser, which has the advantages of being both free and under continuous active development. This review will look both at how Firefox compares to Internet Explorer and also whether there are actually any problems with it coexisting with Windows.
First, installation of Firefox 0.9 is a breeze. Simply download it from the Mozilla Web site (www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/), double-click on the executable and off you go. The install process is straightforward and for users of IE it includes the option to import existing favourites and other settings.
You are prompted to make Firefox the default browser and that’s it, ready to go. Note that installing Firefox does not uninstall the existing IE installation, which remains fully functional as before, even when it’s no longer the default browser.
Once loaded, Firefox looks reasonably similar to IE, with the familiar toolbar for actions such as back, next, refresh page, plus an address bar, etc. In use the interface is similar to IE; there is very little to re-learn and what there is soon becomes second nature. However there are some important differences and some definite improvements.
First, and most immediately obvious, is that Firefox allows for tabbed browsing. This means that you can have multiple Web pages open in the browser, which uses a tabbed pane to switch between them. It means no longer having to clutter the task bar with multiple copies of the browser while looking at different pages.
This is only one of a number of improvements over IE’s user interface, which is starting to show its age. File downloading becomes simpler, with the option of downloading files to a standard location, the functionality to pause downloads, housekeep downloaded files and so on.
The handling of favourites is also good, with the option to automatically track changes to favourite pages so that you can be alerted when a page is updated. Pop-up ad blocking is also included by default. It also has to be said that Firefox looks much nicer too, at least in our opinion.
While there are many other minor improvements these aren’t enough to make a compelling case for switching unless Firefox plugs the security gaps that make IE currently very risky. First, Firefox doesn’t load ActiveX controls, removing one major security weakness. Second, as recent experience has shown, security problems are patched more quickly than IE ones. Finally most malware targets IE simply because it’s the most popular option, so switching to a different browser reduces risk immediately for this reason alone.
In practice most sites render in Firefox as they do in IE. In a few cases there are minor differences, but on the whole the actual experience is very similar. No problems were experienced in testing on banking sites, e-commerce or other Web applications.
However, the notable exception to this smooth transition are Web applications that make extensive use of ActiveX controls. In testing against a set of applications running on an intranet there was no recourse but to fire up IE to get the ActiveX functionality.
Finally, to the vexed question of peaceful coexistence of Firefox and IE on Windows. The good news is that this too was a painless experience. With Firefox set as the default browser there were no problems on Windows 98, 2000 and XP. It was possible to use IE for those rare occasions when it was needed for ActiveX and to stick to Firefox for the rest of the time.