It's just browsing, but browsing has become pretty important. Most of us spend as much time in our browsers as in our favorite communications or productivity programs.
Why not? Talk about instant gratification! Colorful web pages with interesting information cascade down so effortlessly, it's easy to forget there's a program involved at all--until it's time to upgrade. And it's about that time. Completely new versions of the three most popular browsers--Internet Explorer 7.0 (www.microsoft.com), Firefox 2.0 (www.mozilla.com) and Opera 9.1 (www.opera.com)--are free for the downloading.
Which to check out? All of them. Which to use? Putting bottom line first: Use version 2.0 of Mozilla's Firefox 99 percent of the time and Internet Explorer 7.0 only when you have to. When will you have to? When running Windows Update or when a website you're sure is safe insists on using ActiveX or active scripting. It's OK to use Opera full time, too--but according to web analysts, fewer than 1 percent of us do (see "Follow the Leader" below).
This recommendation has nothing to do with browser features or which is "best." It's about security and all the bad that can flow down onto your PC along with the good. Granted, IE 7 has better security than IE 6; its trusted zones are safer by default with more granular control over settings--particularly regarding active scripting. But options are written in Geek, making the implications of many choices unfathomable.
So what about IE's headline-grabbing anti-phishing feature? Big whoop. Phishing isn't IE's problem--or rather, it's just the problem du jour. Adding another ad hoc, duplicative feature--like the Windows Firewall--is no substitute for the necessary battery of malware scanners/fixers provided by products like ZoneAlarm Internet Security Suite. And if you already have comprehensive protection, the security doppelgangers in IE and Windows are just processor overhead--and potentially confusing.
IE 7's real problem is structural: It shares code with the demonstrably insecure IE 6, the demonstrably insecure Windows and the whole vulnerable Office gang. Good products all, but Microsoft insists on smushing them into one big, easily accessed blob that's a sitting duck for malware sharpshooters.
Not true of the slimmer, faster Firefox, Opera and Apple Safari. Their flaws aren't as consistently catastrophic, they get patched expeditiously, and all provide more functionality than IE.
It's a peculiar irony of today's browsers that their popularity is inversely proportional to their features and flexibility. Internet Explorer is still the first choice of more than 80 percent of web surfers, but the best you can say about its first major revision in five years is that it catches up--sort of. Let's face it, there wouldn't have been an IE 7 at all if some 13 percent to 15 percent of web surfers hadn't switched to Firefox.
Still, the fact that most users still choose the weakest browser reminds us of a long-standing software truism: 80 percent of folks will use less than 20 percent of any program's capabilities. Many of the new marquis browser features--blogging, RSS feeds, programming improvements--appeal to a limited audience. It's the more prosaic functions that deliver the most productivity to the most people.
Take tabs. I have to admit I didn't get tabbed browsing at first. I didn't realize how much time could be saved by opening pages in tabs instead of new windows until I was doing it regularly in Firefox 1.5. Another small but huge change: Firefox 2.0's placement of the close "X" on each individual tab; it saves my cursor lots of trips to the upper right corner and eliminates confusion over which page I'm closing. And I'm really surprised how often I've needed 2.0's ability to restore the pages of an interrupted session.
IE doesn't have session restore, it only lets you close the foreground page, and its tab implementation wastes page space anyway. It would still be OK but for the way IE 7 does toolbars.
I don't mind that Microsoft moved frequently used buttons like "Back" and "Home" to new locales. I mind that--unlike IE 6 and all other browsers--I can't drag them back to where my mouse has found them for the past 10 years. In fact, I can't drag anything anywhere in IE 7! A gelded "Toolbar Customize" command is buried a couple of menus beneath a new "Tools" icon.
Firefox and Opera let you have it your way, and their vibrant communities of third-party developers enhance browsing with innovative plug-ins. Wow, I guess you don't have to give up functionality for security after all.
So why not pick the most featured browser? Community matters and momentum matters. Only Firefox can force Microsoft to make IE secure someday, and its thousands of open source volunteers deserve support. But again, all browsers are free and easily installed. So decide for yourself.
Mike Hogan is Entrepreneur's technology editor.