Why you should consider using a browser other than Internet Explorer
March 3, 2003
It's a funny joke, but it introduces a very serious problem: the latest version of the Opera web browser is the "Bork Edition," which "translates" MSN.com into "Swedish Chef" dialect, rendering the site very difficult to read. The Bork Edition browser is meant to protest Microsoft's practice of feeding "alternate" versions of their sites (most notably MSN.com) to Opera browsers, rendering them artificially inaccessible—that is, the page fed to IE would work on Opera just fine—as an attempt to force visitors use Internet Explorer. Opera's chief technology officer, Hakon Wium Lie, says that "We are working hard to make sure the Opera browser works well on all Web pages, even those that do not follow the Web's standards to the letter. But it becomes impossible when we are targeted and fed distorted pages that don't work in any browser."1
If you are like an estimated 90-96% of Internet users, you are viewing this page with Microsoft Internet Explorer. If you are like the majority of those people, you are using IE because it came with your computer. Microsoft knows this. It's why they threatened Compaq with revocation of their Windows 95 license, obviously critical to their computer sales, if they did not package IE as the default browser. It's why Microsoft told Apple that "if it did not agree to ship its Macintosh computers with Microsoft's Internet Explorer as their default browser [...] Microsoft would discontinue its popular Office program for the Macintosh, which Apple viewed at the time as crucial to its survival."2 Both Compaq and Apple had legitimate contracts with Netscape Communications Corporation to package Netscape Navigator as the default browser; Microsoft was able to make them toss the contracts in the trash.
"But wait," you might say. "That's old news. Besides, I like Internet Explorer. I think it's the best browser." Indeed, of any of Microsoft's products, IE is probably the most respected. Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Word hold iron grips on the operating system and word processor markets, but working as the lab assistant in the computer labs at my school, I regularly hear them scorned by people who are using them only because they don't know of any viable alternatives. In its 4.0 and 5.0 versions, however, Internet Explorer improved so much from its previous generations that even some people who hate Windows and Word had to admit it was a decent browser.
If IE is or was ever a good browser, then there is one obvious reason why: competition. Microsoft Windows and Word never faced the kind of competition that IE initially faced. Take a look at what Microsoft itself says through the U.S. Department of Justice's report:
134. Microsoft's management believed that, no matter what the firm did, Internet Explorer would not capture a large share of browser usage as long as it remained markedly inferior to Navigator in the estimation of consumers. The task of technical personnel at Microsoft, then, was to make Internet Explorer's features at least as attractive to consumers as Navigator's.3
Now there's smart business: make your product better in order to sell it. Common sense, right? Microsoft invested huge amounts of money into improving Internet Explorer because it was desperate to destroy Netscape's mid-1990s lead in browser market share, and they got a good browser out of it. It's what any healthy company does, and it's what gives us the great products that we enjoy today. If this had been the end of the story, you wouldn't be reading this article right now. Clearly, though, you are reading this article, and this is not the end of the story.
So what's wrong? Well, first, we've already seen that Microsoft felt that simply making IE a better browser wasn't good enough: "Decision-makers at Microsoft worried that simply developing its own attractive browser product, pricing it at zero, and promoting it vigorously would not divert enough browser usage from Navigator to neutralize it as a platform." 3 Recall what they did to Compaq and Apple to make sure you saw an "E" icon instead of an "N" when you first booted up your new computer. Their goal wasn't merely competing: it was "neutralizing," and with a 96% market share, it looks like they have achieved it. Unfortunately for Internet Explorer users—yes, I do mean for IE users—IE now has the same kind of iron grip as Windows and Word. What does that mean for the competitive drive that resulted in the much praised IE 5?
We can already see what decreased competition has done: Internet Explorer has numerous flaws. PivX Solutions LLC reports 13 unpatched security holes in IE as of February 19, 2003.4 It is interesting to note that when the same site reported 5 security holes in Opera 7, Opera immediately patched these and released the 7.01 version in which all were fixed. Microsoft continues to lag behind in fixing glaring security problems. (Indeed, Microsoft has a very poor record on security in general, in both operating systems as well as web browsers. That's beyond the scope of this article, but for those using Microsoft products, particularly Windows XP, I suggest reading "Windows XP Shows the Direction Microsoft is Going," linked in the works cited below.)
As the author of the Windows XP article explains, "Since Microsoft has a virtual monopoly, it is enormously profitable to sell users sloppily written software, and then later sell them upgrades to that software."5 This explains why Opera was so much quicker to fix faults in its browser than Microsoft is to repair its own (indeed, it has yet to do so completely), as well as why Mozilla, Opera, and Netscape are all considered (at least by the majority of people who have used more than one browser) superior to IE: they have to be in order to compete.
So what does this mean for you, who, statisicially speaking, is probably using Internet Explorer because it came with the computer? Consider what the U.S. Department of Justice suggests in their report:
174. Microsoft has harmed even those consumers who desire to use Internet Explorer, and no other browser, with Windows 98. To the extent that browsing-specific routines have been commingled with operating system routines to a greater degree than is necessary to provide any consumer benefit, Microsoft has unjustifiably jeopardized the stability and security of the operating system. Specifically, it has increased the likelihood that a browser crash will cause the entire system to crash and made it easier for malicious viruses that penetrate the system via Internet Explorer to infect non-browsing parts of the system. 3
I must admit that this information is dated 1999 and refers specifically to outdated versions of Windows and IE, but the basic premise still holds true, as the up-to-date PivX report on IE security holes and the Windows XP article suggest. Microsoft's products are still designed for Microsoft's convenience and security, not the user's.
The most dangerous problem for all of us, whether we use Internet Explorer or not, is in the threat to conpetition. The Department of Justice ends their report with the following statement:
412. Most harmful of all is the message that Microsoft's actions have conveyed to every enterprise with the potential to innovate in the computer industry. Through its conduct toward Netscape, IBM, Compaq, Intel, and others, Microsoft has demonstrated that it will use its prodigious market power and immense profits to harm any firm that insists on pursuing initiatives that could intensify competition against one of Microsoft's core products. Microsoft's past success in hurting such companies and stifling innovation deters investment in technologies and businesses that exhibit the potential to threaten Microsoft. The ultimate result is that some innovations that would truly benefit consumers never occur for the sole reason that they do not coincide with Microsoft's self-interest. 3
Remember that competition that made IE 4 and 5 so good? Sadly, it looks like such good business procedure as producing a stellar product is only an emergency policy at Microsoft. Think of Microsoft's blocking of Opera users from MSN.com. Think of their threats against Compaq and Apple. Microsoft prefers bullying people into using Internet Explorer to allowing products to compete against it.
If either the ethical or the pratical implications of this bother you, then take a look at the browser you are using. Could it be better? Maybe you don't even know if it could be. Indeed, if you're using IE because it came packaged with your computer, then Microsoft is glad that you haven't considered otherwise, because they don't have to work nearly as hard as they did in the mid-1990s to make Internet Explorer any more secure, any more convienent, any better.
Knowing this, perhaps now is the time to consider trying a different browser. You can download all of these for free on-line. Netscape is a fast and friendly browser that is distributed by a major corporation, if you feel secure with that sort of backing as many people do. Mozilla is Netscape's sibling, built off of the Netscape source code that became public after Netscape could no longer afford to compete; it has earned rave reviews and because it is open-source software, bugs are fixed quickly by people who aren't in it for profit, but simply for good software. Opera is a sleek newcomer to the browser market that has been hailed as incredibly secure and fun to use. (Plus, you can get that oh-so-amusing Bork Edition!)
As Opera's CTO Hakon Wium Lie said, "Microsoft seems to treat the Web like private property, and that's wrong, and then the Web is going to fail."6 By choosing a browser other than Microsoft Internet Explorer, you can help encourage a free Internet. By eroding even a bit of that 96% IE market share, you help assure that the Internet does not have to conform to one company's standards, designed to support that company's interests at the expense of the rest of us. If you think feeding purposely faulty code to a certain browser is wrong, and if you believe that competition is what brings us all better products, there is something you can do about it.
Perhaps even if you try all three of these browsers (and by try, I mean not giving up and saying it's not as good when it's merely not what you're used to) you may still decide that you prefer IE. Certainly, none of these browsers I have mentioned are perfect. But even so, you deserve to know IE's flaws and, moreover, that there are other choices out there. Those of us who have discovered these other browsers are willing to bet you'll like them better. The more of us that use them, the freer the Internet will be. Because even Internet Explorer users surely would agree: Microsoft can't be allowed to claim ownership of the Internet. It should be free to all of us.
1. "Opera releases 'Bork' Edition." http://www.opera.com/pressreleases/en/2003/02/14/
2. "Apple tells of Microsoft threats." http://news.com.com/2100-1001-217337.html?tag=rn
3. "U.S. v. Microsoft: Court's Findings of Fact." http://www.usdoj.gov/atr/cases/f3800/msjudgex.htm
4. "Unpatched IE Security Holes." http://www.pivx.com/larholm/unpatched/
5. Jennings, Michael. "Windows XP Shows the Direction Microsoft is Going." http://www.hevanet.com/peace/microsoft.htm
6. Acher, John. "Yahoo! News: Opera Swipes at Microsoft with Muppet Browser." http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&u=/nm/20030214/wr_nm/tech_opera_microsoft_dc
Addendum: March 14, 2003
When I wrote this article 11 days ago, I decided to focus it around a point that I think is obvious but which I have never heard anyone else make: that if IE doesn't face competition, then it is going to (has already...?) become a piece of garbage. Yes, I have heard people say in general that competition makes good products, but I've never heard the threat to ALL Internet users, including those who use IE, said specifically anywhere before. Then today, March 14, I found an article at CNET, the widely respected tech news site, that finally said it:
You don't need to be a "Netscapee" to bemoan the demise of what once was the hottest company in the tech kingdom. [...] Microsoft no longer faces any challenge that forces it to innovate. If Microsoft were still trailing behind Netscape, Internet Explorer would be a far better product. That's what competition's all about.
Someone said it, someone finally said it! And it was someone working for CNET, too! I feel vindicated. Read the article—but remember, kids: you heard it here first. ;)
I would like to add to this wonderful link only that we can still do something about it, if we refuse to apathetically let Microsoft close their iron fist over us. I refer you back to those alternate browser links at the end of my column.
Addendum 2: November 18, 2007
In the three and a half years since I wrote this article, I have switched to using Linux as my operating system because I whole-heartedly embrace the open source software movement. I also use OpenOffice as my word processor, and of course, the illustrious Mozilla Firefox as my web browser, which I recommend with the utmost enthusiasm.
A while ago I took this article down in a revamp of my personal page, but having found it again, I decided that even as the specific instances get older, the truth of the matter remains. Microsoft hasn't changed. I'm not even as zealously anti-Microsoft as my status as a Linux user might make me seem—in fact, my fervor has cooled a bit now that I'm not stuck using their sub-par products—nor do I think that, say, Apple or Netscape were saintly, but I do try to support healthy, ethical and progressive business practices. I'm not anti-capitalism, but I do think that some kind of regulation is necessary to ensure that the corporations are serving society, not the other way around.