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Opting Out?

Don't want to stick with Microsoft's default browser applications? Here's how to explore your options.

What's it like to be one of those businesspeople who surfs the web with a browser other than Microsoft's Internet Explorer? It's a very small hassle, a tiny inconvenience-offset by a greater sense of security.

I have my own favorite, but my job dictates that I regularly use Internet Explorer and as many other browsers as practical. The worst thing I've noticed about browsing with Mozilla, Netscape or Opera is that, sometimes, you'll land on a web page whose layout is slightly off because the site was tuned to display in Internet Explorer. Or maybe the page will blank out on some auto-loading multimedia item.

Actually, that can happen with Internet Explorer, too, if it's set to block scripts that automatically launch programs. Incredibly, some sites still use every hacker's favorite: Microsoft's ActiveX controls and scripting. Many surfers still don't disable scripting-maybe because that affects page displays.

Personally, I steer clear of sites that force-feed me scripts-except Microsoft's Windows Update site, of course. But if you really have to get on a site, just click your Internet Explorer icon, and hit that page again-if you're sure it's safe.

That's the real question-to which there really isn't a good answer anymore. One thing is for sure: You can't afford to be a default Windows user; someone who accepts a Windows PC's default directories, settings and applications like Internet Explorer and Outlook. Computing today requires aggressive use of security tools and almost weekly patching of Windows software. Yet a recent study by the National Cyber Security Alliance found that two-thirds of all PCs lack a firewall and up-to-date virus protection, and up to 80 percent may already be infected with spyware.

CERT, the federal Computer Emergency Response Team, suggests sidestepping some of those dangers by using a browser other than Internet Explorer. And Chris Hofmann, director of engineering for the Mozilla Foundation in Mountain View, California, says security concerns are driving a boom in downloads of his Mozilla and Firefox browsers. Firefox alone logged 1 million downloads within days of its fall preview and more than 5 million within its first month.

No Soup for You!

The case for Internet Explorer alternatives got stronger when Microsoft let it be known that its long-awaited security overhaul won't be made available to that half of Internet Explorer users who haven't upgraded to Windows XP. Microsoft characterizes Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) as "all about security."

Some might call that crack-filling. Microsoft considers it adding value, and non-XP users who want those "features" can pay $99 and embark on an OS changeover. Even that won't guarantee your security because, as security expert Secunia points out, SP2 doesn't fill every crack.

Even if it did, it's the vulnerabilities not yet born that threaten us most, the only real antidote for them being a proactive commitment by your software's developer. One surefire way to ensure that it stays committed is for its browser market share to fall below its current 90 to 95 percent. Does that mean you should dump Internet Explorer, as so many e-mails in my inbox advocate? No.

That's simply not practical for the overwhelming majority of businesses that rely heavily on Windows technology. For one thing, you can't download those megabyte-size patches for Windows software without Internet Explorer. Besides, Microsoft became your principal software provider because you really like its products, and they contribute to your productivity every day.

Plan B

But a backup browser plan doesn't require an OS change or an application makeover. Open source browsers are free, quickly installed and easily used.

While devotees swoon over tabbed browsing, pop-up blockers and constantly updated news feeds, their use is optional, and none require training. Their interfaces differ, but hopping between Mozilla, Netscape and Opera is no more challenging than switching between Microsoft Word and Excel. The key "feature" of open source browsers is what they don't have: a plague of spyware and Internet Explorer exploits like the new Trojan that invades your PC inside a JPEG image.

Some argue that they'll prove just as buggy as Internet Explorer once they're popular enough to attract hackers. Maybe, but that's not the record of Apache web servers, which already dominate the web. Open source code is subjected to more rigorous review by outside programmers, says Hofmann. Its development team puts a higher priority on security, pointedly avoiding some of those services that make Internet Explorer convenient but more vulnerable. All software contains bugs, but there's no equivalence to the flaws in Internet Explorer, says Hofmann.

Will an open source browser solve all your security problems? Heck, no.

But then again, having an Internet Explorer backup couldn't hurt, and it might just mean you avoid that one bug with your name on it.

Just Browsing:

These browsers offer tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking and dynamic news feeds:

  • Mozilla 1.8: Mozilla Foundation's internet suite includes a browser using the Gecko engine AOL/Netscape released to open source developers, plus e-mail and web page editors, address book and internet chat.
  • Netscape 7.2: AOL/Netscape's Gecko implementation with access to AOL Instant Messenger and Netscape WebMail
  • Opera 7.5: Opera Software's suite includes e-mail and chat. An ad-free version costs $39.

Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.

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This article was originally published in the January 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Opting Out?.

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