Saturday, December 29, 2007

IE7 vs. Firefox: The Competition Really Begins

It's been a busy couple of weeks in the browser market, with Microsoft finally "shipping" Internet Explorer 7 and Mozilla making its Firefox 2.0 final.

Of course, both browsers have been around for a long time in beta versions, but it's good to see them finally considered ready for everyone. I've been using both a lot over the past couple of days, and they are nice improvements.

Internet Explorer 7 shows a bigger set of changes, but that's to be expected, since it's been years since IE 6 came out. The browser finally adds tabbed browsing, making it the last significant browser to do so, along with anti-phishing controls, integrated RSS reading, and an ability to much more easily manage add-ons and active X controls.

I particularly like a couple of ease of use features, notably its zoom capability, and the Quick tabs button, which lets displays thumbnail versions of your open browser tabs at the click of a button.

Firefox 2 isn't as big of a change, but it also adds a number of new features, such as putting the button to close a tab on the tab itself (rather than the far right hand side of the tabbed bar), anti-phishing features, a spelling checker, a session restore feature (for getting back to a whole group of open tabs") and an undo close feature. While a few of the old extensions don't work, most seem fine.

My favorite new feature is probably the spelling checker, which is very helpful when you're filling out or typing in a web form. This worked really well for me.; and I can imagine it improving the spelling on blogs all over the web. I also like the way Firefox integrates an RSS reader, but also lets you easily choose among some alternatives.

In my tests, both browsers had some nice features and pretty good compatibility with the web sites I tried. Even most of the complicated AJAX-based sites worked pretty well. But I did run into some problems.

IE 7 doesn't work properly on the Community Server site where I create this blog, which is a major problem for me. Yahoo Mail beta gave me a warning about an unsupported browser, but seemed to work fine. Firefox was better on the sites I tried, with it not working only on a few MSN sites (such as administering an OfficeLive web site).

Of course, one can blame the software behind these sites as much as the browsers, and that's a real issue. We all like new features, but it would be great if every site and every browser just worked together. (I've had even more problems with Opera 9, even though that passes some of the compatibility tests out there, which just proves we need better tests.)

In my normal surfing, I haven't yet come across anything marked as phishing in either browser, but that's probably me. But I'm glad to see both browsers doing things here, as it may be the biggest issue facing browser users these days.

If I had to choose just one browser, I'd stick with Firefox, in part because it was more compatible for me, and in part because it has a couple of features I found myself using a lot, especially the spelling checker. I also like the idea of portable applications, which you can run from a USB memory stick, which I expect will be out shortly for Firefox 2 (betas are available now.)

But in practice, I'll probably keep both browsers around because not everything is compatible with any one browser these days. That's a shame, because the whole point of the web is to be able to link to any site and be able to use it.

For now, though, it's great to have two competitive browsers out there (or really three, because I'd include Opera 9 in the list). Competition is leading all the browser developers to push forward and make their browsers do more, be more secure, and get easier to use. That's good for all of us.


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