Things change quickly in the world of computers. Just a year ago Microsoft's Internet Explorer seemed to have an unassailable hold on the Internet browser market.
Then all of a sudden through a combination of multiple security vulnerabilities, an aging set of features and the emergence of more modern browsers, Internet Explorer has started to look vulnerable.
So vulnerable in fact that over 100 million users have already switched over to other browsers. And the browser most have switched to is Mozilla Firefox.
Firefox is a fast, lean tabbed browser produced by the Mozilla Corporation. It's the young nimble brother of the original full-featured Mozilla Suite that itself being a spin-off from the ill fated Netscape browser.
The current version of Firefox is 2.0, the first major update since V1.0, the first official release.
Firefox is an impressive product but it's certainly not perfect. A decision to move from Internet Explorer to Firefox is a decision involving trading one set of attributes for another. Each individual will need to weigh the pros and cons and make a decision based on their own needs.
The purpose of this guide is to help you make that choice. And if you decide to go for Firefox I hope to provide you with some tips to make the transition from Internet Explorer as smooth as possible.
Three Good Reasons to Abandon Internet Explorer
1. It's an ongoing security risk.
Even the most one-eyed Microsoft supporter would have to accept that IE has been plagued with security problems.
First, as the world's most popular browser it's a target for hackers. That's because any vulnerability they uncover can be utilized against over 90% of all computers. That's quite a temptation. In fact there have been more attacks against IE than any other Windows component or application and there is no reason to believe this will lesson in the future.
Second it's a security risk because it employs Microsoft's propriety active scripting component called ActiveX. Now ActiveX offers users some real convenience features but those features come at a high cost. Security experts have been concerned about ActiveX right from its introduction and those concerns have proven justified as ActiveX has been at the center of multiple security vulnerabilities including many of the most serious. And it's not only ActiveX, IE also makes use of VBScript and browser helper objects (BHOs) two other convenience technologies that has been heavily exploited by hackers.
The latest version of Internet Explorer, IE7, includes enhancements that address many of these scripting problems but the fundamental problem remains.
Third it's a security risk because IE is too close to the core of the Windows operating system. In fact Microsoft itself argues that it's actually not a browser but part of the operating system. Such closeness is not a good thing; it means that a hacker who breaks into IE may not only have hacked your browser but may also be able to gain access to the operating system itself.
Finally Microsoft's record for responding to reported flaws in IE has been checkered. In several well publicized instances Microsoft have denied the existence of the flaws and instead, gone into "blame the messenger for the message" mode rather than respond. In other cases they have questioned the severity of the claimed flaws. This strange PR-driven stance has meant that patches for a number of critical flaws have been slow to arrive. Indeed even today there are over 20 publicly reported but yet unpatched critical IE flaws. And don't expect things to change much in the future.
Firefox is not exempt from flaws and as it has becomes more popular, these flaws are emerging. Part of this is due to the fact that, unlike IE, the Firefox source code is in the public domain and can be scrutinized for flaws by hackers. However Mozilla has shown itself to be very responsive to fixing reported flaws, often doing so within a few days. This is a far cry from Microsoft's poor track record.
2. If you are not using Windows XP, Microsoft has abandoned you
Internet Explorer 7 is only available to those using Windows XP SP2 or later. Users of earlier versions of Windows have to IE6, a version which has proven highly vulnerable to exploitation. Worse still, the folks at Redmond have announced that any future security enhancements to IE6 offered to Windows XP SP2 users will not necessarily be made available for any Windows operating system prior to XP. The intent is evident; they want everyone to upgrade to Windows XP or the upcoming Vista. The Microsoft announcement will inevitably embolden hackers to target future attacks on IE to versions on non-XP PCs. So if you don't use Windows XP, this alone is sufficient reason to look for an alternative to Internet Explorer.
And it's not only security. IE6 is a dated browser that doesn't even offer tabbed surfing. Yet another reason for users of earlier Windows versions to shift to Firefox.
3. Internet Explorer is less configurable than Firefox
Although IE7 now offers a useful collection of add-ons that allow you to customize your browsing experience the number of such add-ons just can't compare to the 1000+ free extensions available for Firefox.
For example I currently use eleven Firefox extensions, but only one is available for IE7.
To many users, these free extensions are more than niceties; they are integral to the browsing experience. For example the free Adblock extension that eliminates the vast majority of web ads. At the time of writing there is no comparable free extension available for IE7.
IE6 is even less configurable than IE7 and most of the add-ons available are commercial products not free
Three Good Reasons to Stay with Internet Explorer
1. Some web sites won't work properly with Firefox
A number of web sites utilize non-standard, proprietary Microsoft features such as ActiveX in order to provide site navigation and other features. It's probably not a good web design practice but that doesn't stop people doing it.
If you visit one of these non-standard sites using Firefox you will find that some functions won't work or work differently. This could be could be something trivial like the screen colors are wrong or an animation doesn't work or it could be some vitally important function such as a logon box or navigation link.
Luckily there aren't too many such sites and thankfully, their number seems to be reducing. However there are sufficient that you will encounter one sooner or later. If it's an important site such as your internet banking site then you are going to be frustrated.
One site that definitely doesn't work with Firefox is Microsoft Windows Update. Hardly surprising but still an annoyance.
You can of course, simply open IE when you encounter any of these sites. Firefox even has a downloadable extension that allows you to open a page using IE from within Firefox. This significantly reduces the nuisance value but does not of course, solve the basic problem.
If you use Firefox you are going to have to accept that certain sites will be broken and will require you to fire up IE to access them. This is a simple reality.
2. Firefox loads slower than Internet Explorer and takes more memory
Firefox may load web pages faster than IE but the program itself takes longer to load. Much longer, maybe twice as long. Firefox also uses more memory than IE.
IE's better performance here is to some degree an illusion. That's because some of the major components of Internet Explorer are always running on your PC, they are pre-loaded when Windows starts. That means IE has less work to do when it starts so it loads quicker. It also means that IE actually takes up more memory than it appears to.
This Firefox load time inconvenience can be eliminated by always keeping Firefox loaded and simply minimizing it when not in use. In fact it doesn't even need to take up any task bar space as there is a free Firefox extension that allows you to minimize it to the system tray.
Minimizing Firefox also releases some of its memory space so you are killing two birds with the one stone
That said it is a reality that IE loads faster and all potential Firefox users should be aware of this.
3. Firefox has had its own security problems
Firefox may be safer than IE but it has had its own share of security problems. Indeed since V1 was released there have been more than seven new versions containing security enhancements.
This may be so but Mozilla have to be commended how quickly they have released patches for newly discovered flaws, often only a day or two after the flaw was first demonstrated. This is in sharp contrast to Microsoft's tardy response to fixing IE problems.
In fact I have never encountered a hostile website that successfully exploits flaws in the then current version of Firefox. In other words, if you keep your copy of Firefox up to date it is extremely unlikely your browser security will be penetrated. The same cannot be said of Internet Explorer, particularly IE6.
As I said earlier, a decision to move from Internet Explorer to Firefox is a decision involving trading one set of attributes for another. Each individual will need to weigh the pros and cons and make a decision based on their own needs.
If you are not using Windows XP, I think the situation is clear cut. Microsoft has announced that they will not upgrade your Internet Explorer to the latest version 7. Given that, you should move to another browser just on security grounds alone. And if you are going to go to another browser, then THE current browser of choice is Firefox
Windows XP users on the face of it, have a real alternative to Firefox. They can stay with IE by installing XP Service Pack 2 along with IE7.
However experience with IE7 since its release indicates the likelihood of on-going security problems. Yes, Internet Explorer 7 is safer than IE6 but Microsoft's track record for speedily fixing any security problems is poor and bodes ill for the future.
So what do I think?
There is no doubt that Firefox is currently less of a security risk than IE6. In particular it is way less liable to Spyware infection. Every week I get letters from readers who have migrated to Firefox from IE because of recurrent IE6 based spyware infections. Commonly these folks tell me since changing over, they have never had a spyware infection.
This equates with my own experience. Not only have I never had a spyware infection since using Firefox but I have never even seen a circulating spyware exploit for Firefox. By contrast I encounter IE6 based spyware exploits every day.
There is no doubt that IE7 offers better security then IE6 and maybe as good as Firefox 2. However IE7 will remain a target for malware writers simply because of its popularity. That means that there will be more flaws discovered and more exploits released than for Firefox. Combine that with Microsoft's slow response to releasing patches and IE7 security becomes a serious concern.
So to me, security is the bottom line here. Yes, Firefox offers faster browsing. Yes, there are hundreds of free Firefox extensions to customize and optimize your browsing experience. All that is fine and most welcome but the real clincher is that Firefox offers a safer browsing experience and that alone is sufficient warrant to drop IE and make the change right now.