Windows Tip Sheet

Secure, Safe, Feature-Laden Web Browsing

Alternatives to the standard IE.

Back when Microsoft released Windows 98, the company made the decision to include IE as a part of the base Windows OS. A nice decision in that we all get a free Web browser, but a bad decision in many other respects. Now that Windows is on an every-four-years product release schedule, we don't get new browser features that often. IE's built-in support for VBScript and ActiveX (support disabled by default in Win2003, by the way) made the browser one of the biggest security flaws in the entire OS. There's plenty of reasons to wish we had a new IE. Windows XP Service Pack 2 will bring some much-needed updates (like pop-up blocking), but we won't get an all-new browser until Longhorn ships in 2005. Sorry, 2006. Or is it 2007?

If you spend a lot of time on the Web, as most of us do as part of our jobs, you need an efficient Web browser. They're out there! My current favorite is Firefox, the next-generation browser from the Mozilla Foundation www.mozilla.org, the open-source group that spun off from Netscape a few years ago. Forget about the usual open-source style of "download this source code and compile it yourself"; Mozilla offers complete, ready-to-install MSI packages for Windows and installers for other operating systems.

Firefox gets you cool, tabbed browsing, making it easier to peruse several sites within a single window. You also get built-in pop-up blocking, which is nothing short of godsend. It doesn't support VBScript or ActiveX, instantly plugging half the security vulnerabilities that crop up in IE, and that means Web sites can't invisibly install software on your computer. It's only 6MB for the entire installer package—about half the size of IE. Firefox has built-in search engine integration, which not only works with Google but with nearly any other search engine you might prefer through the innovative use of plug-ins. I hook mine up to search eBay. Sure, you could install the Google Toolbar in IE (which I did), but having instant, integrated access to whatever search engines you want is efficiency.

Firefox's extension capability allows third-party components to be plugged in—not unlike ActiveX controls, except that the browser's Options dialog lets you see what's been added and then disable any extensions you no longer want. One nifty extension replaces the usual right-click context menu with a funky, round, icon-based "pie" menu, meaning you don't have to move your mouse pointer more than a few pixels to select any available menu option.

There's some well thought-out features, too. I hate how IE's autocomplete feature pulls up URLs that I've mistyped in the past; Firefox lets me edit my autocomplete list.

The downsides are few, but pretty severe for corporate users. Auto-proxy discovery simply doesn't exist, so if you've invested in a firewall like Microsoft ISA Server, you'll have to get used to manually configuring clients—yuck! There's also no automatic connection detection, so users will have to manually reconfigure their proxy when they move their laptop to their home network. For that reason alone, I'd say Firefox—and most non-IE browsers—are less than suitable for major corporate deployments, unless you can take steps to ease configuration pain. But Firefox is an efficient, cool-looking browser to run on your own workstation. And hey, isn't Web browsing supposed to be cool?

Don't get me wrong—IE isn't horrible. When the next version eventually does come out, I'll probably switch to it. I switch applications like browsers more often than most people change their socks. But if you've never tried another browser—or media player, or IM client—give Firefox a shot. You never know what little efficiencies you'll pick up with a different product. And there's a lot to try—Netscape (similar to Firefox), Opera, and many more.

What browser do you prefer and why? What killer features are you hoping Microsoft will stuff into the next IE release? Let me know at donj@braincore.net.

Micro Tip Sheet

If you're sticking with IE as your browser, grab the Google Toolbar (www.google.com), which not only offers browser-integrated searching but built-in popup blocking, as well.

Want to centrally manage users' Internet Connection Firewall settings? In WinXP SP2, of course, it's called "Windows Firewall," and SP2 comes with an array of Group Policy settings that allow central management. These settings can be configured in either a 2000 or 2003 domain, but you'll have to actually edit them from an XP SP2 machine, since neither 2000 nor 2003 come with these settings built-in.

More Resources
Mozilla Foundation: www.mozilla.org

The Houston Chronicle reviews Firefox: http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/business/2447483

Get a mini Mozilla-based browser for your PDA: http://www.mozilla.org/projects/minimo/

Article on reasons to use Firefox over IE: http://www.flexbeta.net/main/articles.php?action=show&id=32

Netscape: http://www.netscape.com/

Opera: http://www.opera.com/

About the Author

With more than fifteen years of IT experience, Don Jones is one of the world’s leading experts on the Microsoft business technology platform. He’s the author of more than 35 books, including Windows PowerShell: TFM, Windows Administrator’s Scripting Toolkit, VBScript WMI and ADSI Unleashed, PHP-Nuke Garage, Special Edition Using Commerce Server 2002, Definitive Guide to SQL Server Performance Optimization, and many more. Don is a top-rated and in-demand speaker and serves on the advisory board for TechMentor. He is an accomplished IT journalist with features and monthly columns in Microsoft TechNet Magazine, Redmond Magazine, and on Web sites such as TechTarget and MCPMag.com. Don is also a multiple-year recipient of Microsoft’s prestigious Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Award, and is the Editor-in-Chief for Realtime Publishers.

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Reader Comments:

Wed, Aug 4, 2004 Chad Hawaii

I too have made the switch to alternate browsers. I am using both Firefox and Opera, as there are websites and certain Cisco products that do not work well with other browsers. I do have one pet peeve with Firefox, and that is every link I click in an email, it pops up with a Locate Link Browser dialog box. Think it may have to do with my installation...not sure.

Mon, Aug 2, 2004 PCMystro Orange County, CA

I've been using FireFox for a couple of months and I will agree it is feature packed. I began using the Browser in Linux mainly because of the close similarities to IE in terms of Internet Compatibility. As I have read in many of the comments, I agree that the majority of the vulnerabilities within IE can be avoided by disabling certain functions and features. What seems to be missing from many of these articles and responses is the understanding of what drives new technology. Much of what we utiliize today on our computers began as a novelty and did not focus on security or stability until it became mainstream. The browsers that compete with IE focus on security because it is the main weakness of IE and therefore the greatest opportunity for marketability. They are no more security conscious than Microsoft, they just have timing on their side

Thu, Jul 29, 2004 NetGod DFW

Couldn't agree more. Firefox rocks and .9.2 is now available so get out there and upgrade!

Thu, Jul 29, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

I have been using Mozilla for over a year and have been extremely pleased with the quality of the product. I do find that installing new plugins everytime there is a browser upgrade to be a slight annoyance. Tabbed browsing makes for a great thing, opening everything in a new tab and being able to switch between them makes for quicker research. I also find some products we use do not work within Firefox, usually remote administration of our AV product. Another thing I notice is that a website that refreshes frequently (www.morningstar.com) the browser likes to go back to that tab or window and it can become a problem if you're in the middle of something else.

Thu, Jul 29, 2004 Serverguy NY

As another Firefox user, I am also pleased to have and use this browser as an alternative to the problematic and hard to secure IE. I think browser development is still in it's infancy. Just as television has opened the world to us, the browser is the window of the internet. And just as television has evolved, so too will browsers. Two major problems you failed to mention are standards and threats. I mean when will webmasters begin to agree to code pages with "best" standards in mind, rather than coding for IE exclusively? Microsoft needs to adopt these standards in it's next browser. There is much intelligent discussion of this topic in open source forums such as mozillazine.org. As for threats, browsers will increasingly need to protect Jane-home-user from the multitudes of spyware-scumware lurking behind every link WITHOUT a bunch or settings tweaking. Right now, I don't think a browser exists that is totally secure from every threat out there right out of the box, but Firefox is definitely closer to that ideal than IE. Now if we could just convince the other billion Windows users out there... ;-)

Thu, Jul 29, 2004 Anonymous Anonymous

great job

Thu, Jul 29, 2004 Jon Paine UK

Good points. However I have to disagree with the "disagvantages" Don gives. I work in Security and non of our customers use ISA as a firewall. most proxies installed are configured via global policy and content security URL filtering is also often implemeted in transparent mode using a reverse proxy. Firefox is great - a few bugs remain but it is better than Internet Exploiter / Internet Exploder...! Writing a secure browser is possible. Roll on IE7 and let's see what Redmond can do...

Thu, Jul 29, 2004 Carolyn Northern Ireland

I've all but given up on IE6 for home use. I've tried Netscape and Opera but it looks like Firefox will be getting installed next. When will Microsoft learn about security vulnerabilities and package a decent browser that can't be hijacked, prevents pop-ups and allows tabbed windows? Until then I'm sticking to other browsers. Great article and keep up the good work.

Wed, Jul 28, 2004 Bryan J. Smith www.glintuition.com

Thank you for a pure set of technical analysis.
It's good to see MCP is filled with people who are dedicated to technology, not vendor-alignments.

Wed, Jul 28, 2004 Rich Boston

Read the article when it was first published... A week later out comes a serious security vulnerability in Firefox. Its a pity, but despite CERT's wacko advisory to corporations to dump IE, really we just need to do the obvious things - like disable, or control Active X.

It is a shame that we need to implement a firewall on each machine (XP SP2), but I think it will go a long way.

The missing piece is a comprehensive way to eliminate Spyware. Spyware consumes more of my time than any other security effort at this point.

Wed, Jul 28, 2004 Royce (MCSA 2003) Orange, CA

Don,

You don't need to install a new browser to deal with ActiveX, VBScripts, AutoComplete annoyances, and custom searches. If you don’t like how Internet Explorer 6 AutoCompletes URLs for you then: On the Tools menu, click Internet Options, click the Content tab. Under Personal information, click AutoComplete. Select the check boxes for the AutoComplete options you want to use.

On the Tools menu in IE 6, click Internet Options, click the Security tab, click the Internet Web content zone, and then click Custom Level.
In the Settings box, scroll down to the Scripting section and select the Active X options you want. In Internet Explorer, the options "Active scripting" or "ActiveX scripting" refers to both Microsoft JScript scripting and Microsoft Visual Basic Scripting Edition. If you disable these, you will disable both types of scripts.

To customize a search provider, such as Google, for address bar searches in IE 6 simply click on Search, Customize, Autosearch Settings then choose your search provider of choice for address bar searches.

Wed, Jul 28, 2004 Jeff Mortenson Biloxi, MS

I couldn't agree with you more. IE has created more problems than the intergrated OS brower has prevented. I tried Opera around a year ago right before I tried Mozilla and Mozilla Firefox. I use both without fear of getting hijacked. Competition is a good thing, maybe Mozilla will wake Microsoft up and let them know a "sleeping giant" will soon be awaken if the IE vulnerabilities aren't fixed.

Long live Open Source!

Wed, Jul 28, 2004 Rey Texas

I agree with you whole heartedly! I've been using Firefox for the last 6 months and I love it! Thanks for spreading the news about Firefox

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