The Anti-Buzz: Web Browser Malaise

by Andrew Emmott on August 3, 2010

in Anti-Buzz,Internet

The Buzz: Web Browsers are all the same. They are merely a decorative wreath of menus that surround my precious websites.

 The Anti-Buzz: Even though it might not always be a “big deal”, the inner workings of each browser can affect your experience.

Why: Web Browsers are more like an Operating System that crawls the Internet instead of your hard drive, and the Internet is up for interpretation.

This week we’re discussing the web browser. I don’t want to get too technical – or long-winded – so I’ll lean on Wikipedia’s dry, geeky, straightforward description of a web browser.

A web browser is a software application for retrieving, presenting, and traversing information resources on the World Wide Web. An information resource is identified by a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) and may be a web page, image, video, or other piece of content. Hyperlinks present in resources enable users to easily navigate their browsers to related resources.

Users tend to think of the Web as stuff that is “just there” and their browser just offers a set of menus to go with them. This view is not completely inaccurate, but it ignores the fact that a static set of web resources are not going to be read the same way by different browsers.

Better to think of web browsers as Operating Systems. Your normal OS is a way for you to interface with the resources on your own computer, and the web browser interfaces with all those global resources made available on the web. The web resources don’t care what OS your computer is using, or how much RAM you have, or how much free hard drive space you’ve got – the web resource is hosted on another computer entirely. Your favorite website, (Let’s call it emmottontechnology.com), is “compatible” with Mac, Windows, Linux, Amiga, and any other OS under the sun because it talks to your web browser, not your local system. If you start playing Farmville on Windows, you can log in and play it on your friend’s Macbook later.

Idealistically, web pages should all be read the same way, but the fact that they aren’t is fall out from good ‘ol marketplace competition. Each browser wants to outdo the others, and so the software is always changing. Historically, browser development has focused on new features, (and new bragging rights), over compatibility and even bug fixes. Only in the last three years or so have most browsers all met a similar rendering standard, (See Acid2 if you are really curious about that). In theory they should all render the same now, but they still don’t all behave the same, and history has kept me cynical on the issue.

So my biggest aim this week isn’t to sell you on a particular browser, but to encourage that you actually try many browsers and find an honest fit for yourself. For most people, web browsers are just a matter of taste – but you can get stuck sticking with what you are used to, which, if I may be so bold, is a huge reason for Internet Explorer’s success.

For your business, I advise consistency above all else…

Make sure all workstations are set up to use the same browser, this way technical problems – and solutions – are uniform throughout the office.

The major browsers, by market share, as of July 2010, are:

  • Microsoft Internet Explorer – 51%
  • Mozilla Firefox – 31%
  • Google Chrome – 8%
  • Apple Safari – 5%
  • Opera – 2%

There are, in fact, probably quite a good many more browsers than you’d even care to imagine. Most of them are actually based on the basic engines of the above five, and even those five above share some genetic history, (See wikipedia if you’re really curious about that).

Even as jaded as a lot of geeks are about Internet Explorer, I would say that any of the above five would serve you well. I urge every one reading to give each one an honest try. I can expound the technical merits of each one, (and I will), but I’d say your browser of choice should be a matter of taste. No browser claims sole ownership of any truly great feature forever – the competition between them causes the best innovations to migrate to every other browser, usually pretty quickly.

Here’s a summary of my-experience-with/opinion-of each browser.

Microsoft Internet Explorer:

Much like Windows, Explorer has compatibility on its side. Its market share isn’t quite what it used to be, but it is still the most popular browser and so it is the one that every major website will cater to. On the rare occasion that some business website doesn’t work for me, (Something like purchasing an airline ticket, signing up for online bill payments, anything that requires a lot of information and fields to be given by me), it will work in Explorer without fail. This does not mean that things always get displayed correctly or quickly – Explorer was the last major browser to pass the Acid2 test – but it does mean that things will always work.

My personal frustration with the browser usually stems from way too much clutter at the top of each window, (“features” they are called), and pop-up windows being obfuscated behind some sort of preventative mechanism that can make it tedious sometimes to interact with sites that produce multiple informational windows. If the Vista-to-7 transition was any indication, Explorer might be a bit more streamlined now.

The other issue is that dread-word “security” – although discussing security in the context of browsers can be dodgy. According to both Secunia and Security Focus, Explorer is the only browser with a significant amount of software vulnerabilities. But what this means in practical terms is hard to say, especially since none of these vulnerabilities are categorized as critical. It is more an indication of sloppy software design than any actual threat to your well-being – and you should know by now that I stand by the dark-alley metaphor anyway. Further, in the context of a browser, a “security flaw” can be “outgoing” – as in a software flaw that might enable a hacker to use the browser to nefarious means, rather than a flaw that puts you, the casual user, at direct risk.

I think, really, the biggest reason for backlash against Explorer isn’t the browser itself, but its insidious strategy to proliferate itself – since Windows 98 it has been an integrated part of the operating system. As you well know, you can’t uninstall it, and you never have to go to the trouble of finding it and installing it because its just part of Windows. Its easy enough to prove with statistics: Explorer had trouble taking market share from then-rival Netscape until it leveraged its OS-market dominance to deliver themselves unto the laziest and most technophobic computer users. Explorer’s dominance has little to do with its quality as a product and everything to do with shrewd business on Microsoft’s part. This is really the core of all the disdain Explorer gets from the geek community, because otherwise its really not a bad browser.

Mozilla Firefox:

Its hard to write at length about Firefox anymore. Once the darling underdog, Firefox is sort of just “the other big one.” I think overall it is the best browser out there, and certainly the most well-rounded. It’s very good at everything. It seems to come in a close second-place in every category: Second-best compatibility, speed, feature set, and probably number one in security – though you know I don’t lay a huge weight on that crown. This is the easiest browser to ween people off Explorer with because its is the most Explorer-like in terms of menu arrangement and basic navigation.

This is probably the easiest recommendation for an office because it is, put simply, the friendliest and least frustrating browser out there, and very safe as well. Like Explorer, “it just works” – but it is also more stable and secure.

But I also say browsers are a matter of taste, and this is not my browser of choice, at least not any more. Download Firefox

Google Chrome:

My current favorite, Chrome is very similar to Safari, and in some ways out-Safaris Safari. What I appreciate about Chrome is its minimalism and speed. It is not a very feature-rich browser, but I don’t seem to want for anything when I use it, and a lot of people find they feel the same way. Chrome’s biggest notable innovation to the field is that it puts each tab/window into its own process, which is terribly geeky concern but I assure you that this is a very smart and modern move. It’s a natural way to make the browser put your multi-core processor to good use, and it also keeps browsing problems isolated. If you have six pages open and one of them is looking at some bloated website that is prone to crashing, your whole browsing experience won’t come to a crawl when that tab meets its doom – and Chrome is the only browser to do this, (For now).

Chrome is extremely processor friendly, which makes it good for older machines, and it sports a few other neat conveniences, such as a built-in pdf viewer, and that little “+” button that opens new tabs in one-click – a simple but oh-so-convenient feature that was quickly replicated by every other browser.

It is not entirely stable, in some ways buggier even than the maligned Explorer, and while it sports no security “vulnerabilities” it has been villified for its lack of privacy features, which broadcast your ip address and other computer information to every system you browse. Ultimately, this is not as big a concern as it sounds, but you can’t call this the safest browser. I love using it, but I’m not sure its the best fit for an office. Download Chrome

Apple Safari:

Safari’s simpler interface and modern engine is the inspiration behind Google Chrome. Safari is less processor friendly, but it is probably the most media-friendly browser out there. I tested a flash game on multiple browsers and far and away Safari produced the best results. Applet performance in Safari is top-notch, so great that if this is important to you I think it can merit making this your browser of choice. A solid browser anyway, and nearly-tied with Firefox for security. This is the default browser for Mac users and it is solid enough that I have trouble recommending them away to other options. Download Safari

Opera:

Once my browser of choice, a year ago I reluctantly admitted that it no longer suited me. Opera’s niche is innovation, and whether you realize it or not, you owe your modern browsing comfort to this software. Opera was the first browser to develop away from the old Netscape-Explorer paradigm, and was for a long time the only browser to support multiple tabs, (My biggest attraction to it when I started using it in 2003). Opera is feature rich, and by “feature rich” I don’t mean it clutters up your screen with a million buttons. Opera was the first browser with built-in pop-up blockers and anti-spyware protection – previously these were add-ons you had to install on your own, and sometimes more trouble than they were worth.

True Opera advocates are in love with the features that still haven’t been duplicated, most notably mouse-gestures. People who love Opera forever usually make good use of its many features for what might be described as a shangri-la of browsing – but there’s a learning curve, and even I don’t want to “learn” how to use my web browser.

Opera lacks compatibility, and can be slow, and its best and most obvious features are available everywhere. It has been slowly replaced by Firefox as the non-Explorer-browser-that-looks-like-Explorer-of-choice but its historical significance cannot be denied, even though the layman might never know of it. Download Opera

Conclusion:

I can’t tell you which browser is right for you, but I’d like to challenge you to consider that whatever you are using right now may not be the right one. So I’m going to issue a challenge, and I’m going to participate myself – for each of the five browsers covered here, use it as your default browser for two weeks. Long enough to you might actually get comfortable with it, and then when it is all said and done, pick the one you genuinely liked the most. Report your findings here, or email them to us for the inevitable follow-up article!

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{ 1 comment }

DMDrep August 3, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Chrome is my current browser as well. Great article as always Larry! I particularly like being able to access my customized web browser on any computer with all of my bookmarks and tabs ready to go.
I love the speed, security and the fact that it is tied to google – – a company I find very innovative and interesting.

Warren

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