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

Don Jones is a multiple-year recipient of Microsoft’s MVP Award, and is an Author/Evangelist for video training company Pluralsight. Don is also a co-founder and President of PowerShell.org, a community dedicated to Microsoft’s Windows PowerShell technology. Don has more than two decades of experience in the IT industry, and specializes in the Microsoft business technology platform. He’s the author of more than 50 technology books, an accomplished IT journalist, and a sought-after speaker and instructor at conferences worldwide. Reach Don on Twitter at @concentratedDon, or on Facebook at Facebook.com/ConcentratedDon.

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