Browsers have been in the news again lately.
The open conflict between China and Google has brought front page/national news attention to Internet privacy and censorship lately. Google announced that Chinese cyber spies had hacked into Gmail accounts in order to identify human rights activists in China. It turns out that it was not just Google. Other popular web service providers had suffered similar attacks. And now it has become a diplomatic incident
, with Sec of State Clinton and Pres Obama now forced to intervene even while presumably engaged by Haiti, growing mess in Afghanistan and more.
Google--somewhat belatedly for many--retaliated by threatening to stop self-censoring searches of its Chinese edition. Web freedom activists have long felt this accommodation to Chinese law violated Google’s philosophy http://www.google.com/intl/en/corporate/tenthings.html
. Yahoo, Microsoft, Cisco and others feel pressure to follow suit.
Browser Security Holes the Point of Attack
So what does this have to do with browsers? Turns out that the cyber warfare story behind the story has to do with Chinese teams exploiting yet another point of failure in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser. Microsoft has now patched that problem, and web users should get it. According to the BBC
and others, Microsoft knew about the vulnerability since September and planned to patch it. Soon. February. For the government of Germany, enough was enough. In the middle of the cyber crisis, they urged web users in their country to stop using IE altogether, as part of their version of domestic homeland security.
Yet, statistics show many users still on IE 6, presumably many because users have older computers and just don’t know what they have. Partly also, some corporate software apparently displays better on IE6. Presumably German authorities felt that an announcement, "please upgrade to IE8 and set your computer to download all your security patches weekly" really would have required way more public information that is practical. Makes sense to me.
We keep an eye out for who continues to support IE6 compatibility and who does not. Paychex just announced it would end IE6 support as of March 2010 for its payroll software. 37Signals announced way back in the fall of 2008 that it would phase out support for IE6
in Basecamp and its other web services. "Supporting IE 6 means slower progress, less progress, and, in some places, no progress." Good for you, Paychex, 37Signals, web developers no doubt said to themselves. Microsoft itself will pull the plug on IE6 in July 2010.
Of course, the bigger story is that more and more web users have moved away from Internet Explorer altogether, much as in the German announcement. Too confusing and just can't wait. Many folks used to worry that websites developed with Microsoft tools would fall apart outside of Internet Explorer. Not true! In fact, some .Net web pages that test fine in competing browsers need tweaking for IE.
Firefox now has just under a quarter of all web users.
With plans underway for it, I suspect Firefox will continue to grow. (For example, soon each Firefox tab will run in its own memory space. This means that if one page causes a problem, it won't freeze other tabs. This also helps with speed. Chrome works this way now.)
What is most intriguing to me is the continuing march forward of Google’s Chrome. In early January 2010, statistics showed it had inched by Safari to become the third most popular browser. It has become my preferred browser. Why? It’s quite fast and has that now familiar clean look of other Google products.
Personal esthetics aside, two things account for Chrome’s surge
Beta Release for Mac and Linux. I have been using the Linux version on my Ubuntu netbook, and it has been fantastic. It may be beta, but like other Google betas, it seems ready to go. In my personal experience, it’s much faster than either Opera or Firefox running on my small Ubuntu notebook. Other reports support this.
On XP, both it and Safari seem significantly faster than either IE or Firefox. The forthcoming release schedule for Firefox includes a lot of focus on performance, so who knows where things will line up.
The other big news in the Chrome department has been growing support for browser extensions. There’s still nothing like the Firefox library. Yet my most essential extensions installed really easily and work just fine—Delicious bookmarks, Lastpass password protection, bitly url shortener, Gmail integrator, and Evernote note and page clipper. Small bonus: unlike Firefox, you don’t have to restart the browser when you install or update the those extensions.
For many folks, all the yak about extensions must seem so nerdy. Yet browser extensions are to web experience what apps are to mobile: we spend so much time in the browser while using our computers, why not make the effort to personalize and enrich our experience? Though this may drive standards-minded IT departments crazy, it seems part of life on the ‘net today.
Why choose one over the other? Security, Speed, Customization, and User Experience
As I mentioned, number one reason for me in crossing over to Chrome on my 1 GB netbook has been speed. It is faster with Gmail a
nd all the Google stuff, yet not just. It’s hard to truly compare “fast.” In my case, it means being able to have a lot of tabs open at once and for a long time with limited memory. Apple has steered clear of supporting Linux (no Ubuntu browser, iTunes or anything) so I can’t compare, yet the Windows version is quite fast as well.
I have all of Chrome, Firefox, IE, Safari and Opera on my older Windows XP notebook. I switched from Firefox toChrome there as well my first choice browser. All the browsers now emphasize a modern spare look, which is great, with Safari and Chrome the most refreshing in this regard.
The contradictory thing about Chrome’s speed is that part of the netbook attraction is that it runs well with low memory. On the other hand, on XP at least, its speed seems to come at the price of insatiable memory. I posted some tips about this Chrome issue here
Why NOT to choose one over the other?
The browser makers compete over the four categories mentioned above. This is good and worth paying attention to. They also compete over internal features, some of which is good and some not. Two features I would recommend steering clear of are bookmark synchronization and password protection.
Each of the browsers now emphasize their features for these everyday requirements. They even have grown in ability to sync across multiple computers. I don’t look anymore and I don’t care. I use delicious to hang on to my bookmarks (supplemented by evernote page grabber). And I use lastpasss for keeping track of passwords. I’m not going to review those products here. I’ve commented on them in earlier posts, and I recognize there are other options in each category.
The point here in a review of browser choices is that those choices seem to be blowing wide open in a product category that a few years ago seemed “solved.” There’s more choices on the desktop and more on mobile phones as well. (My Nokia phone also has, yes, three separate browsers I cycle among.) By storing your critical web experience information independently, you can switch from one browser to another as well as from one computer to another.
I can save a site log-in to my lastpass account from browsing with Windows desktop in Firefox and then the next day, open that same site from Chrome on my Linux netbook—or find the same password from my lastpass app on my cell phone. Likewise with my delicious bookmarks.
By contrast, the syncing each browser offers emphasizes keeping you locked in to that one browser. Browser lock-in does not feel like a good thing for the year ahead for me, and I hope you don’t either.