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Battle Of The Browsers

Times are changing. In the traditional model of computing, the operating system you used (e.g., WIndows, OS X, Linux) served as the base upon which you would install a variety of applications for locally manipulating your data. Presently, an increasing amount of work normally handled by client-based applications is now moving towards cloud-based (i.e., Internet-based) alternatives that are accessed within your web browser.

Consequently, the type of operating system you use is now much less relevant than what web browser you use, since it serves as your gateway to the World Wide Web (WWW). Out of all the programs on your computer, the web browser has now become the single most important piece of software you use.

Everyone knows that Microsoft’s Windows operating system has a monopoly on worldwide market share when it comes to personal computers (PCs). So, it should not come as a surprise that the web browser that comes pre-installed with every new Windows PC (i.e., Internet Explorer) enjoys a similar dominance when looking at web browser usage.

At its apex, IE enjoyed about 95% market share. Why? There are probably at least several good reasons for this, perhaps, undeserved hegemony, for example:

  1. The average person that was experiencing the power of computing for the first time probably assumed that whatever software came with their computer was sufficient or best for their needs. The leap from having no computer to having one (even one that had IE installed as the default browser) probably made differences between browsers seem trite.
  2. Lack of viable competition, hence the monopoly charges.
  3. See number 2

We have come a long way since 2004, and IE is facing serious competition on myriad fronts. In addition, the average computer user is now more sophisticated and is willing and ready to explore other options to suit their needs. While there are many browsers out there, I am going to focus on the three main IE alternatives: Mozilla’s FireFox, Apple’s Safari, and the new kid on the block, Google’s Chrome.

All three of these browsers are cross-platform, meaning they can be used on Windows, OS X and Linux platforms (except Safari, Windows and OS X only).

The main rival and the browser primarily responsible for drawing first blood on IE is Mozilla’s much-loved FireFox (FF). Initially released in 2004, FireFox has managed to capture approximately 30% of the global market, although recently it has seemed to flat line due to increased competition from Safari and Chrome.

The strength of FireFox comes from the fact that it is completely free and open source, and that it has a vast, mature collection of add-ons, i.e., software extensions, that you can use to customize the browser and enhance its functions. When it comes to speed and text/image rendering, it is slightly inferior to its WebKit-based rivals, although the differences would probably be unnoticeable to most people. Running benchmarks and actually using a browser day-to-day are two different things, and I still think that FF can hold its own, despite its minor technical issues.

Apple’s Safari is up next. Like IE, this browser is the default application for browsing the web on OS X. Often, testing consistently reveals it to be one of the fastest browsers out there. Like with most Apple products, using Safari is an aesthetically appealing experience, with some of the best text/image rendering and svelte graphical flourishes, such as their Top Sites page and the ability to peruse your bookmarks and web history in Cover Flow mode.

Traditionally, Safari’s Achilles heel was its closed nature, i.e., its complete lack of any official, add-on infrastructure. With the latest release of Safari 5, Apple has remedied this situation and announced the Safari Developer Program. The result will be the Safari Extensions Gallery, an Apple-sanctioned place for users to obtain add-ons for their browser.

The noob is Google’s Chrome. While it has only existed since 2008, it has quickly won over the hearts and minds of the digerati (i.e., the technical elite) and has even surpassed Safari in worldwide market share. Among pleasing design choices, incredible speed and a rapidly increasing supply of capable add-ons, Chrome has novel security features (e.g., its innovative process model) and, in fact, was the only browser left standing after 2009’s Pwn2Own hacking contest. Time will tell if Chrome can live up to all this lavish praise, but many indicators seem to suggest that this is going to be the browser to beat moving forward.

I hope this brief introduction to modern web browsers has been informative and increased your curiosity about what other options are out there. These browsers are all free to download and use, so you have nothing to lose by giving something different a shot. Future posts will focus on some of the best features of each browser and introductions to excellent add-ons/extensions.

Images via zipckr, dannysullivan, Keng Susumpow, Eason Hsu and Randy Zhang

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