Windows users to be offered choice of browsers

Microsoft’s Windows operating system has begun offering users a choice of browsers when surfing the web, no longer limiting them to Explorer.

 Many internet users might not be so excited about some freedom of choice coming their way.

Microsoft’s Windows operating system has begun offering users a choice of browsers when surfing the web, no longer limiting them to Explorer. The freedom might excite some, but the less tech-savvy could find the choices overwhelming.

Browsers are essentially the web surfer’s board. They are the programmes that make viewing websites possible. Nonetheless, they are an unknown quantity for many people.

“A lot of people use them without really knowing what they are,” says Tim Bosenick, Manager at Sirvaluse, a German company that evaluates technical products.

Until now, Windows users were more or less forced to use Explorer.

It was automatically installed on most PCs and appeared automatically as a light blue letter e in the toolbar. Anyone who wanted to use a different browser had to make a conscious decision to install and use it. But now the European Union has more or less ordered Microsoft to expand the choices offered.

Users will notice a change when they update their Windows operating system.

“The window automatically pops up,” says Microsoft spokeswoman Irene Nadler. It will show the five most common browsers. Alongside Explorer there will be Version 8 of Firefox – the newest – as well as icons for Opera, Chrome and Safari. Since Microsoft is blocked from promoting Explorer, the solution seems fair, says Jo Bager of c’t, a German computer magazine.

Scrolling right will reveal yet more browser options. Under each symbol is a clickable area where people can go for more information about the browsers – and how to install them. Anyone who wants to think before acting can opt to be reminded about the choice later.

But those who act quickly and then have buyer’s remorse will not get the window again, meaning they will have to manually track down a different browser at its website.

“All four browsers offered in the window are sensible alternatives,” says Holger Maass of Fittkau & Maass, a German information technology marketing research company.

Firefox, for example, can be expanded easily thanks to add-ons, giving it a whole new range of functions. Google’s Chrome also offers add-ons.

“Chrome has developed unbelievably quickly in the meantime,” says Bager. One drawback for users who care about information security: each browser is linked to a personal number that allows the browser operator to track every user and his surfing behaviour. Google has promised to shut that function off in its newest version.

“Fast” is the word most people associate with Opera, offered by the Norwegian company of the same name. The new version 10.50 is particularly speedy. Computer users who don’t have especially fast internet connections can also benefit from a special Opera setting for such computers.

The advantage of Apple’s Safari is its wide array of functions.

“For example, you can page back with a mouse movement.” But those functions could also make users unfamiliar with them nervous.

Indeed, at the end of the day, a lot of computer users have grown used to Explorer, which could be good news for Microsoft.

Microsoft fixes browser flaw used in Google breach

Microsoft Corp. took the unsual step of issuing an unscheduled fix on Thursday for security holes in its Internet Explorer browser that played a role in the recent computer attacks that led Google to threaten to leave China.

The updates are for all supported versions of Internet Explorer, from IE 5.01 up through the newest IE 8.

People who have their computers set to install security updates automatically will get the fix. PC users who don’t automatically get updates should go to to download the patch.

Microsoft said it learned of the problems last fall and was already planning to release the fixes in February. Last week, it confirmed that the attacks described by Google Inc. took advantage of the same flaw.

Hackers can lure people to Web pages containing malicious code, then exploit the browser flaw to take over their computers. Attackers in China may have used the flaw to break into e-mail accounts of human rights activists who oppose the Chinese government. Hackers may also have used this flaw, among others, to break into Google’s own networks and those of other large companies such as Yahoo Inc. and Juniper Networks Inc.

Microsoft seldom releases security patches outside its regular, once-a-month update cycle, but has been known to rush out patches for so-called “zero-day” exploits in which hackers attack a software hole before the company has a chance to find a fix. The last time Microsoft broke from its security update schedule was in July 2009.

Internet Explorer: The unloved market leader

Attacks from hackers, takedown campaigns by web activists and conflict with the European Union: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) is not just the leading browser, it’s the most controversial one as well.

In particular, the tight links between the program, available in Version 8 since March 2009, and the Windows operating system have provided plenty of fodder for critics. It’s also a significant factor in the product’s success.

“If Internet Explorer didn’t come pre-installed, then it wouldn’t be used so often because there are better alternatives,” argues Jens Appelt from Germany’s Computer Bild magazine.

Leaving behind the matter of “better alternatives,” Appelt’s statement otherwise mirrors the sentiments of the European Union (EU) in Brussels. The EU Commission has been fighting with Microsoft over the way the company bundles its products.

IE has come pre-installed as the default browser on Windows PCs since the mid-90s. Because nine of ten computers sold worldwide are estimated to run Windows, this provides the manufacturer with an enormous channel to distribute its browser.

The company’s competitors have complained that bundling IE with Windows represents monopolistic behaviour, prompting a formal complaint by Norwegian browser maker Opera in Brussels.

The EU Commission called on Microsoft to comment on the situation.

The company then proposed allowing customers of Windows 7 to use a window to select their preferred browser themselves. Dealers could also delete the already pre-installed Internet Explorer and install other browsers.

A more radical approach to breaking Microsoft’s dominance on the browser market is being advocated by a group of activists in the US.

Their solution is a script called “Explorer Destroyer”. It allows operators of websites to determine which browser their visitors are using. If IE is discovered, then the script can be set to either politely encourage a switch to Firefox or to block access to the site altogether.

The initiative’s chances for success are questionable. Regardless of the results it produces, Microsoft’s position on top is growing progressively shakier anyway.

A study produced by the market researchers at Net Applications in Aliso Viejo, California, found that IE held only a 68-per-cent market share in late 2008. Just two years earlier that share stood at 80 per cent. Firefox snagged a 21-per-cent piece of the pie during that same period.

IE has even become the second option in some demographics. German- speaking net users, for example, are more likely to be using Firefox than the Microsoft product, claims a study by Fittkau & Maass, a German market research group.

“The use of Internet Explorer is dropping, while Firefox is picking up users,” says Jens Appelt. “But Internet Explorer always had very strong competitors. Once it was Netscape Navigator, now Firefox. It nevertheless remains the most used browser worldwide.” The biggest criticism of IE is its security. The concerns are serious enough that the Institute for Internet Security at the Polytechnic University of Gelsenkirchen in Germany actually warns against using the Microsoft browser at all.

There are various factors that contribute to the software’s problems with security. One is its appeal as a target for hackers.

With so many users, successful hacks have more of a chance to do damage.

Another strike against the software is the fact that security holes, even once discovered, take longer to patch than comparable holes for the competition. A recent test by Computer Bild magazine also showed that IE has weaknesses in its speed and functionality.

One big strength of Internet Explorer is its ease of use, Appelt says. Another plus point, the expert argues, is the very point about which the competitors complain: the fact that IE comes preinstalled, meaning that PC buyers can use it straight out of the box. But the biggest weaknesses, Appelt says, “are the limited variety of functions and the speed.” The latest version of the software appears to have gotten some of those problems under control.

“Internet Explorer 8 is already more convenient than the previous version, although it’s not quicker,” Appelt says. For example, the browser now makes suggestions while a URL is being typed in, drawing from sources like previously visited sites, browser history, or favourites. “Web Slices” allow visitors to keep tabs on frequently visited sites – such as eBay or Facebook – without having to actually call up the sites themselves.

Whether these features are enough to keep the browser ahead of the pack is questionable, says Appelt.

“Just how the usage of Internet Explorer will trend in the future depends on how good it becomes,” he notes. Microsoft has clearly accepted the fact that a major battle is brewing: it has set up portals to provide a forum for users to express their opinions and desires for the next version, IE 9.