Tag Archives: Web browser

The Browser Wars: Another Milestone

(This is a copy of my Loose Wire Sevice column, produced for newspapers and other print publications. Hence lack of links)

By Jeremy Wagstaff

As you know, I’m into milestones, and another one has been passed in recent days: Microsoft’s market share of browsers is down below 60%.

Now this may not sound very exciting to you, but it is. And you are to be congratulated. Because it’s you who have made it happen.

Let me explain.

A couple of years ago, when I started training journalists on things digital, I used to ask them what browser they used. They either answered Internet Explorer—Microsoft’s browser, which comes with Windows—or they would look blankly at me.

The truth is that since the demise of Netscape in the late 1990s, there really hasn’t been much of a battle between the browsers. Most Windows users accepted Internet Explorer, while Mac users settled for the Apple browser Safari.

So when I would ask the class whether they had heard of Firefox, the Open Source browser, they would again look blank, or bored, or both.

That was then and this is now, two years on.

Now most of them have heard of Firefox, and many of them have it installed on their computers.

Not only that: Most of them have tried out Google’s own browser, Chrome.

Indeed, nowadays, when I venture a peek over shoulders at cafes and in offices, I see many more Firefoxes (or Chromes) than I used to.

So it doesn’t surprise me to read that, according to research company Net Applications, Internet Explorer’s market share has, for the first time in more than a decade, fallen below 60%.

Of course, 60% still sounds like a good chunk of the market, but remember this: Internet Explorer is the default browser on Windows computers, which still occupy most of the world’s desktops. Last year that figure was nearly 68%. Two years ago, when I started the training course, the figure was 77%. Back in 2003 it was 95%.

Compare this with Firefox, which is now on nearly a quarter of the world’s computers. And while Chrome has only a small share—6.7%—it is growing at quite a clip. A year ago that figure was closer to 2%.

Some of this may be down to a ruling in Europe which has forced Microsoft to offer 12 different browsers. But more likely is that people are getting smarter—more demanding—about what is on their computers.

After all, we spend a lot more time in our browser than we used to. Most of us now use webmail, rather than a separate email application. A lot of us use tools like Google Docs, rather than Microsoft Office. And, of course, there are productivity killers like Facebook, all of which are primarily accessed through the browser.

So what makes these other browsers so appealing?

Well, Internet Explorer is considered notoriously insecure, for one. Lots of bad things are supposed to happen if you use for online banking etc. And users like their browsers fast and light. But perhaps most importantly, Firefox—and increasingly Chrome—offer a range of plug-ins (little bits of software that, well, plug in, to your browser to do extra things for you, from tell you the time in Timbuktu to letting you save clips to online databases, or to Facebook).

This, I think, is part of a broader trend that Microsoft and others haven’t figured out yet.

I see an increasing number of people using Gmail, Google’s webmail service, and I’ve noticed that all these people have customized their interface. This wouldn’t have happened even a year ago. Now they’re exploring beneath the hood of the default settings, and changing their environment to suit their moods and work styles. Some of these changes are small—background colours or themes—but they’re also more productivity-oriented, adding labels and filters to their workflow.

This is great. This is just what they should be doing. But it’s also part of a bigger trend that I believe explains the inexorable shift away from the default.

The simple truth is that as we spend more time in the browser we’re less likely to just go with what’s given to us. We want our browser to be as good as possible and because the changes we make to our online services are movable feasts: If I’ve changed the background on my Gmail to black, shifting to another browser isn’t going to reset it back to boring white.

There’s another factor at play here. Websites used to look very different depending on what browser you used. That’s changed, as developers follow standards more closely (what’s called being “standards compliant”). This gives us users a lot more flexibility—we don’t feel like we’re going to break something on our computer, or not be able to access, say, our banking website—if we’ve left the reservation and installed another browser.

The next step: the browser replaces your operating system. Google is onto it. 

Crash Maps

Another intriguing use of Google Earth: to map statistical likelihood of car crashes, from Ohio State University. Interesting stuff, though it doesn’t explore what I think is the key factor in crashes: unpredictability. In a place like the UK everyone follows strict rules (supposedly), so any deviation is unpredictable and therefore likely to cause an accident. In a place like Indonesia the only predictable element is that drivers won’t be predictable, so other drivers allow for odd behavior. Statistically, there should be many more crashes in a place like Jakarta than there are. Why? Because everyone knows other drivers will do weird things, and so they’re ready for them.

What makes this model novel is that scientists have now combined the statistical software with Google Earth–a program that offers an interactive map of the entire globe–to map the results as color-coded lines. Google Earth is able to perform this function because it reads the output from the statistical model in KML files; much as a Web browser reads HTML files, the KML files tell the program where on the planet to draw lines or place images, explains Holloman.

Keeping the Keyloggers out of the Basement

Here’s a product about to be announced that claims to really protect users against keylogging — when bad guys capture the keystrokes you make and then transmit it back to base: StrikeForce’s WebSecure (PDF file):

The basic idea, StrikeForce’s PR guy Adam Parken tells me, is that “keystrokes are encrypted at the hardware driver and delivered directly to the browser.” This, he says, “gets around the OS, messaging service, etc. where keyloggers normally hide.” It looks a bit like this (from a WebSecure presentation):

Websec

If that makes any sense. The grey boxes are the bits in between the keyboard and the network, and they’re all places that keyloggers hide. Anti-keylogging programs, as I understand them, are usually merely programs that try to guess what’s going on, and, if they see something sleazy, warn the user. Usually this is based on a prior knowledge, or library, of known keyloggers or known keylogging tricks.

WebSecure, instead, according to the press release, “automatically encrypts every keystroke at the keyboard level, then reroutes those encrypted keystrokes directly to the Web browser, bypassing the multiple communication areas that are vulnerable to keylogging attacks.”

WebSecure is going to be demoed at DEMO here sometime in the next 24 hours or so. If they do the job seamlessly and as promised, WebSecure could be quite a useful tool for companies and end users. But it’s an area long tackled and never conquered by security software developers, so I’m not holding my breath.

Directory Of Clipping Savers

Update Nov 7 2006: A new kid on the block for Firefox 2.0 users: Zotero. (Thanks, Charles)

I recently wrote in WSJ.com (subscription required) about how to save snippets of information while you’re browsing. I didn’t have space to mention all the options I — or readers — came across, so here’s the beginnings of a list. Please feel free to let me know about more: The basic criterion is that the service lets the user easily capture material they’ve found on the Internet (for stuff that’s more socially oriented, check out my Directory of Social Annotation Tools).

  • Zotero. It not only does a great job of storing globs of web pages or the whole thing but it has an academic bent too, allowing you to store bibiographic information too.
  • ContentSaver:   is both a browser add-in and an Office-style application at the same time: With the additional toolbar and the extended shortcut menus in the browser, you can easily gather material during your Internet research. 35 EUR (Thanks, Ganesh)
  • eSnips:    Save real web content not just links: relevant paragraphs and images you find on any web site….oh yes, and links too. 1GB free
  • wists.com: The idea is to bridge the gap between blogging and bookmarking. It aims to make simple list blogging as easy as bookmarking and make bookmarking take advantages of weblog publishing, with automatic thumbnail image creation etc. (David Galbraith)
  • Net Snippets: The friendly, intuitive way to maximize the effective use of information from the Internet and online research
  • Jeteye: enables users to create, send, view and share any type of online content, add notes and annotations and save it all in user organized Jetpaks™ through an easy drag and drop interface.
  • Google Notebook: makes web research of all kinds – from planning a vacation to researching a school paper to buying a car – easier and more efficient by enabling you to clip and gather information even while you’re browsing the web.
  • ClipMate: ClipMate saves time and makes you more productive by adding clipboard functions that the Windows clipboard leaves out – starting with the ability to hold thousands of “clips”, instead of just one. ($35)
  • Clipmarks: Clip and tag anything on the web
  • Onfolio: a PC application for collection, organizing and sharing information you find online. ($30 to $150)
  • EverNoteQuickly create, organize and find any type of notes on an endless, digital roll of paper. (from free to $35)
  • ScrapBook: a Firefox extension which helps you to save Web pages and easily manage collections. Key features are lightness, speed, accuracy and multi-language support.
  • Omea Reader: Free and easy to use RSS reader, NNTP news reader, and web bookmark manager. It’s fast, it aggregates, and it keeps you organized.

My personal favorites? I love ScrapBook because it lets me save stuff in folders on my own computer. Clipmarks is great for online stuff, and the tagging/folder mix is powerful. EverNote has its moments but for all its interface ingenuity, it’s not easy to organise stuff.

An Opera whinge:

Some readers have pointed to Opera’s ‘Notes’ (Flash Demo) function which is neat, but doesn’t do as much as ScrapBook (there’s also a Firefox extension called QuickNote which performs more or less the same tricks as the Opera Notes. And besides, I’m still mad at Opera for not supporting drag and drop. What is it with them?  (Sad to say that, because I think Opera have been great in improving interface design. But I think they’ve dropped the ball. Back in February 2003 I was wowed (WSJ.com link; subscription only, I’m afraid) I wrote:

Just when I thought software had become as innovative as a bacon sandwich, something came along to prove me wrong. There is software out there that is innovative and that actually makes things easier. It’s a Web browser made by a Norwegian company called Opera Software ASA and its latest incarnation, released last month, is a real gem.

Of course, that was before Firefox came along and stole my heart.

Computer-On-a-Stick

Here, for those of you still lapping up the whole USB programs off your thumb-drive thing, is FingerGear’s Computer-On-a-Stick:

The Computer-On-a-Stick (COS) is a USB Flash Drive featuring its own ultra fast Onboard Operating System with a full suite of Microsoft Office-compatible applications.

According to Tom’s Hardware Guide, the drive is 256 MB and has programs taking up 192 MB, and retails for about $150. Software includes “a Debian-based Linux OS, a version of the open-source productivity suite OpenOffice as well as Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, an Instant messenger and a PDF viewer.” (Thanks, TechSpot News.)

A 512 MB version is coming soon, as is one with biometric fingerprint scanner.

Running Linux Off Your Thumb

Following on from my Directory of programs for USB drives, here’s another Linux offering, allowing you to run GNU/Linux from a USB pen drive:

You can carry GNU/Linux in your pocket with a functional, quick, and useful USB pen drive distribution. Pen drives are faster than CDs, and the small distros that fit on them don’t require huge amounts of memory for the operating system and applications.

Slax is a powerful and complete bootable distro based on Slackware, equipped with kernel 2.6, ALSA sound drivers, Wi-Fi card support, X11-6.8.2 with support for many GFX cards and wheel mice, and KDE 3.4. Slax uses the Unification File System (also known as unionfs), which enables you to write whatever you want into the pen drive. Bundled software includes KDE, the KOffice office suite, GAIM for chat, the Thunderbird email client, and the Firefox Web browser.

Slax comes in a variety of versions. You can get a minimal version of Slax called Frodo, without big applications, that fits in 41MB, or choose among the 200MB standard editions such as Killbill (which I use) or PopCorn.

I must confess I haven’t tried this, but it sounds a great alternative.

Firefox Moves To Mass Market?

NetApplications, a ‘leader in Web-based applications that measure, monitor and market Web sites for the Small to Medium Enterprise (SME)’, says (no permalink available) that Firefox “continues to sway users away from Microsoft’s Internet Explorer”.

Firefox reached 8% during the month of May up from 7.38% in April. Firefox’s gain is Microsoft’s loss whose base dipped to 87.23% in May down .77% from April of 2005. Safari also gained a modest tenth of a percentage posting 1.91% in May 2005. Most other browsers experienced little change during the same time period.

NetApplications says IE is losing “an average of .5 to 1% loss of users each month.”  Notes Dan Shapero, Chief Operating Officer of NetApplications: “FireFox is gaining traction with early adopters and its popularity and adoption rate are starting to tap into mass-market acceptance as buzz continues to build.”

May 2005 Browser/Market Share:

  • Microsoft Internet Explorer – 87.23%
  • Firefox – 8.06%
  • Netscape – 1.64%
  • Safari – 1.91%
  • Mozilla – 0.58%
  • Opera – 0.51%
  • Other – 0.07%

The data was collected from over 40,000 Hitslink.com-monitored global Web sites.

Firefox Glitiches, Set Default Browser Solutions, And Other Monday Morning Issues

Another Monday morning, another irritant. This time it’s one of those annoyances in Windows XP that should have been sorted out long ago: Setting a browser as your default browser is no piece of cake. Everything else Internet-related is, from the default editor you might want to use to how you want to handle calendar file. Just go to Internet Properties in your Control Panel. But setting a default browser is not there, mainly because the Internet Properties window is actually the options window for Internet Explorer. And what’s the point of allowing users to open IE, just so they can close it down forever?

Anyway, here’s an easy solution: SetBrowser, a small slice of freeware from PC-Tools that allows you to set more or less any browser you like as the default browser, or any individual protocol, and to test it. It works pretty well, although don’t have it running at the same time Internet Properties unless you want some weirdness to happen in the latter.

By the way, this didn’t fix the problem I was trying to solve, namely an error that keeps popping up when a program tries to launch Firefox (opening links is no problem; it just seems to cause a problem with certain functions, though I don’t know enough to be able to figure out what.) It happens, for example, when I try to open Chat History in Skype, even if Firefox is no longer my default browser. The error message is this:

—————————
MOZILL~1.EXE – Entry Point Not Found
—————————
The procedure entry point ??0nsCAutoString@@QAE@PBD@Z could not be located in the dynamic link library xpcom.dll.
—————————
OK  
—————————

Anybody got any ideas? I assume it’s a glitch in a plug-in, but which one? And is there any easy way to isolate the problem?

Microsoft, The Petty Giant

Microsoft have a nice new look to their website, including a goalkeeper who looks like he doesn’t really know his job. But what is it with the error message, in bright red, that appears at the top of the browser on pages such as Office if you use Firefox 1.0?

Warning: You are viewing this page with an unsupported Web browser. This Web site works best with Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.01 or later or Netscape Navigator 6.0 or later. Click here for more information on supported browsers.

Warning

How naff is that? Come on, Microsoft, get with the program and stop these petty little annoyances that might persuade some novices to drop Firefox in fear, but just put the rest of us in a bad mood, further entrenched in our obstinate refusal to kowtow before the IE god. My suggestion for Firefox’s equivalent to Microsoft’s Where do you want to go today?:

I’m not going to change back: Are you?