Fast Forward: Browser Users Can Celebrate an Independent's Day

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, July 5, 2009

Considering it didn't even exist 19 years ago, the Web browser has done pretty well. No other program on a computer can do so many things -- e-mail, mapping and calendars, to name a few -- thanks to all the Web services now available.

And few other software markets offer as much competition as the browser business. Microsoft's Internet Explorer, after years of neglect, has seen welcome upgrades lately, but competing browsers have advanced further. The one most responsible for terminating IE's monopoly, Mozilla Firefox, received a major update days ago, following new releases of two others, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, over the past two months.

Choosing among these three non-Microsoft contenders -- all offering such core features as "tabbed browsing" (viewing of multiple pages in one window), Web-search shortcuts and automatic blocking of suspected hostile sites -- may not be easy.

The major benefit in the new Firefox 3.5 (a free download for Windows 2000, XP or Vista, Mac OS X 10.4 or 10.5, and recent versions of Linux at comes from new software to run the JavaScript code in many Web pages. Firefox's developers, led by a Mountain View, Calif.-based nonprofit, tout this component as "more than twice as fast" as Firefox 3's software. Tests with a benchmarking site suggested that 3.5 is closer to three times as fast -- but slower than the new Safari and Chrome releases.

Firefox 3.5's private-browsing options do better at catching up to competitors. You can now set this browser, like Safari, Chrome and IE, to keep no records of a browsing session. But Firefox's implementation also works retroactively; you can tell it to forget that you visited any particular page, or every site viewed in the past hour or two.

Other new features will need help from Web developers. For example, Firefox 3.5's "geolocation"-- with your permission, it can estimate your physical location and pass that to a site -- could lend desktop Web use the sort of location-aware smarts common on smartphones. And its support for free audio and video formats could give Internet users multimedia options beyond Adobe's often sluggish Flash player.

Aside from such interface tweaks as the ability to tear off a tab to view in a new window, Firefox 3.5 looks much like Firefox 3. And that's not bad: This browser's plain toolbar-and-menus looks shouldn't alarm people upgrading from Microsoft's obsolete Internet Explorer 6.

Firefox also offers quick, automatic updates -- when a new version ships, the browser downloads and runs a small patch file instead of making you sit through a reinstall -- and lets tinkering types play with thousands of free add-ons that provide extra capabilities.

Apple's Safari 4, shipped June 8 and a free download for Windows XP and Vista or Mac OS X 10.4 and 10.5 at, brings a different bundle of benefits. In addition to its own JavaScript acceleration, Safari 4 offers a cleaner interface with a nifty "Top Sites" view that shows thumbnail previews of your most-visited sites. And in Windows, this browser no longer looks like a Mac refugee.

But in Windows, Safari 4 also needed twice as much memory as Firefox and Chrome. Its address auto-complete feature isn't as smart about remembering where you've been, and its Web-search box connects only to Google (or, in Windows, Yahoo).

Safari 4 throws in such helpful extras as simpler bookmarks editing and a one-click shortcut to fill in forms with your contact info. But outside of a Mac, where these features tie into OS X applications such as the Address Book, it's hard to justify making Safari your only browser.

Google's Chrome 2 arrived in late May. This free download for Windows XP and Vista ( uses less memory than either Firefox or Safari and occupies less screen real estate, too, as it lets you type either a Web address or a Web search into one box in its window. And it runs each open page as a separate computing task, so one malfunctioning page doesn't blow up the whole browser. (IE 8 provides a comparable feature, as will Safari 4 when running on Apple's next version of OS X.)

But Chrome offers minimal bookmarking support, relying instead on address auto-completion and the shortcuts to most-visited sites that it shows when you open a new tab. It also cannot yet subscribe to the RSS (Really Simple Syndication) updates published by many sites or allow users to install third-party extensions.

Wonder what would happen if we could mix the best parts of these browsers? We can: The open-source code of Firefox and Chrome can be improved and reused by others. Safari, in turn, runs on an open-source framework that has itself shown up in other browsers -- including Chrome and those on the iPhone, the new Palm Pre and devices running Google's Android software.

With each update, all these browsers can get a little smarter through the contributions of outsiders. It's hard to see how the closed-source IE -- which suffers from Web-site compatibility issues and sometimes interacts poorly with other software in Windows -- can keep up.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at Read more at

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