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Hot on the Web

The next generation of browsers

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 14, 2006
(Issue 2428, Techno Trend Watch)

As Microsoft has watched its formerly unassailable dominance of the Web browser slip a bit – Internet Explorer now has less than a 90 percent market share after once having about a 98 percent share – the company has finally decided IE needs a major overhaul.

But at the same time, Opera has issued the latest generation of its popular and free browser, Opera 9, and the Mozilla Foundation is reportedly working on a new release of its open-source Firefox browser, v. 2.0, for the fall with the Associated Press reporting v. 3.0 may be out as soon as next spring. And with Netscape still supporting and issuing new upgrades to its venerable browser (built on the same engine as Firefox), any Mozilla upgrade has to lead to speculation on how Netscape will add Mozilla's advances into its own browser.

The giant

IE7 is now in beta testing, and finally gives IE the modern features users have come to expect over the past few years from browsers like Firefox, Opera and Netscape: Tabbed browsing and a built-in search tool, primarily.

Whether it's more secure we'll have to leave up to the high-end programmers out there to figure out (mostly by trying to hack into it); on a high-speed (DSL) connection, it didn't seem to load pages any faster than previous versions or the competition. And in terms of privacy and other tools (pop-up blockers, password storage), it is roughly comparable to other current browsers.

Where Netscape and Firefox both offer a variety of search engines in their built-in search boxes (defaulting to Google, but that can be changed), IE7 beta only has Microsoft's MSN. You can add more, and it's pretty straightforward, but it just seems kind of cheesy.

The tabs for browsing multiple sites within a single browser window work pretty well, and there's one new feature that Firefox ought to copy in future editions: A clickable overview panel that lets you view a thumbnail of all your open tabs at once. Extra credit for the Microsoft developers for using the standard CTRL T combo to open new tabs that everyone is already used to from Firefox, Netscape and Opera; too bad you have to have a tab active to close it – Netscape 8 and Opera both have a close button ("X") in the top right of each tab so you can close even inactive tabs.

At least in beta, IE7 still won't let you add bookmarks directly to the toolbar as you can in Opera, Firefox and Netscape. That's a big weakness, and one not avoided by adding a separate "Links" pull-down menu in the top section of the browser separate from the Favorites in the classic pull-down menu.

And that brings up an interesting point: When you first run IE7 after install, there is no pull-down menu at the top. You can right click your mouse at the top of the browser, where the URL window and search bar are, and activate the "classic menu" – but it isn't there to begin with. Could this be a possible preview of the next Windows interface?

Certainly the overall look and feel of IE7 is much sleeker and slicker than that of IE6 or even Windows XP; it's got a kind of Mac OSX glossiness to it, with those liquid-style buttons for the forward and back buttons.

While IE7 beta is free – and IE7 itself will undoubtedly be free (and will ship with the next iteration of Windows in the spring), you have to go through a rather onerous "validation" process to ensure you have a legal copy of Windows. If you're downloading IE7 with Netscape or Opera, you'll have to download a special "validation" utility; it was easier to simply use IE6 which automatically plugged into Microsoft's servers and sold them your soul.

Just kidding. Probably. Who knows what that validation software does, though? Microsoft acts as if its new browser is so valuable that none of us can live without it – I had to "validate" my copy of Windows not only when I clicked on "download" at the Web site, but after downloading the file when I went to install it, too!

Yes, IE7 is a huge improvement over IE6 – but its functionality is no better than that of the current version of Firefox, and to my taste is still a step behind Netscape 8 and the brand-new Opera 9.

Both Netscape 8 and Opera 9 allow you to close any open tab, even ones you aren't currently in - that's a big time saver. While the thumbnail view of all tabs is a nice feature that Netscape and Firefox lack, Opera 9 has something very similar. And Netscape 8 still has the best password storage tool going – plus the ability to display pages with either IE or Firefox, allowing you to enjoy the security of the Mozilla engine while having IE available for those non-HTML compliant sites that will only display properly in IE. Like MSN and Hotmail.

Still, IE7 is still in beta and it's possible new functionality and other improvements will be added before final release.

Next week, we'll take a detailed spin with Opera's new browser.