Internet Explorer, you're fired.
That should have been said a long time ago. After Microsoft cemented a monopoly of the Web-browser market, it let Internet Explorer go stale, parceling out ho-hum updates that neglected vulnerabilities routinely exploited by hostile Web sites. Not until August's Windows XP Service Pack 2 update did (some) users get any real relief.
And yet people found reasons to stick with IE -- alternative browsers cost money, were too slow, too complicated, or didn't work with enough Web sites.
No more. Tuesday, the answer to IE arrived: a safe, free, fast, simple and compatible browser called Mozilla Firefox.
Firefox (available for Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X and Linux at www.mozilla.org) is an unlikely rival, developed by a small nonprofit group with extensive volunteer help. Its code dates to Netscape and its open-source successor, Mozilla, but in the two years since Firefox debuted as a minimal, browser-only offshoot of those sprawling suites, it has grown into a remarkable product.
Firefox displays an elegant simplicity within and without. Its toolbar presents only the basic browsing commands: back, forward, reload, stop, home. Its Options screen consists of five simple categories of settings -- most of which don't need adjusting, since the defaults actually make sense.
One in particular should delight many long-suffering Web users: Firefox blocks pop-up ads automatically.
But Firefox's security goes deeper than that. It doesn't support Microsoft's dangerous ActiveX software, which gives a Web site the run of your computer. It omits IE's extensive hooks into the rest of Windows, which can turn a mishap into a systemwide meltdown.
Firefox resists "phishing" scams, in which con artists lure users into entering personal info on fake Web pages, by making it easier to tell good sites from bad. When you land on an encrypted page -- almost no phishing sites provide this protection -- Firefox advertises that status by highlighting the address bar in yellow. It also lists that page's domain name on the status bar; if that doesn't match what you see in the address bar, you're probably on a phishing site.
To keep Firefox current with any security fixes, the browser is designed to check for updates automatically.
A "Find" bar at the bottom of Firefox's window lets you search for words on a page without blocking your view of the page itself; as you type a query, the first matching item is highlighted in green. "Find Next" and "Find Previous" buttons jump to other matches, and a "Highlight" button paints all of them in yellow.
For searches across the entire Web, a box at the top right provides a shortcut to Google queries, and a menu lists five other sites, including Yahoo, Amazon and eBay. Downloadable plug-ins offer access to such resources as the Internet Movie Database.
What if that Google search yields four interesting sites? Hold down the Control key as you click each link, and they will open behind separate tabs in your existing window. This tabbed browsing -- a feature shared with almost all non-IE browsers -- is far more efficient and far less cluttered than the old one-page-per-window approach.
Busy readers can also use Firefox's built-in RSS (Really Simple Syndication) newsreader to fetch updates from Web sites that publish their content using this standard. This "Live Bookmarks" feature lacks the flexibility of a stand-alone newsreader, but it's also simpler.
Web addicts can customize Firefox to no end with browser extensions that add functions and themes that alter its looks. Find the Options window's settings too limiting? Type "about: config" into the address bar and you'll see about 600 preferences to tweak.
I've used Firefox as my default browser since February, and in that time I've found few Web sites that don't look right in it. Most of the time, it's the Web site's fault: Microsoft's MSN Video blocks all non-IE browsers, while SideStep's airfare-search tool employs ActiveX (an ActiveX-free version is in the works). In these rare cases, I will fire up IE -- it's not like I can uninstall it -- or, more often, vote with my mouse and move on to another site.
Switching from IE to Firefox is nearly painless. Download a 4.7-megabyte installer, run it, and let it import your existing IE data. Your plug-ins, bookmarks, browsing history and even cookies should transfer over (IE's home page and any saved passwords should be imported, but were not in my tests); you can then pick up in Firefox exactly where you left off in IE.
I think anybody using Internet Explorer should switch to Firefox today. Seriously. Even if you've loaded every IE security update, Firefox will give you a faster, more useful view of the Web. If you haven't -- or if you use a pre-XP version of Windows ineligible for Service Pack 2's security fixes -- it would be lunacy to stick with IE.
(If you're using Mac OS X or Linux, there's no such urgency; Apple's Safari, for example, is a fine browser in its own right and offers a few conveniences that Firefox leaves out.)
Firefox's story doesn't end with this 1.0 version. Some upgrades, such as a rewrite of its awkward bookmarks-management interface, are waiting for later releases. But the beauty of an open-source product like this is that you can participate in its evolution. Firefox's code is open for anybody to inspect and improve; you can browse a database of bugs (bugzilla.mozilla.org) and vote on what you want to see changed next.
All of these advantages may still not suffice to knock off IE anytime soon. But Firefox's development won't grind to a halt if it doesn't suit some company's marketing plans. Can you say that about IE?
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.