October 23, 2012

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The Browser War No One Came To: Internet Explorer Marches On

by Sharon Nelson and John Simek

When Firefox debuted in 2004, it rapidly began to erode Internet Explorer's market share and most pundits declared that the browser war was on. But really, has there even been a browser war? If so, will it continue now that IE version 7 has been released?

In the confrontation between Firefox and Internet Explorer (IE), it turned out that the skirmishes were few. The battlefront was never bloody, and those that once predicted the downfall of the Emperor Gates's browser have been largely silenced by the masses' overwhelming allegiance to IE.

The truth is that most people won't be straying from IE, today or at any point in the foreseeable future. And lawyers are even less likely than most to stray from the fold because the profession's vast majority uses Microsoft Windows and IE comes in the package. Given that most lawyers are reluctant to learn new software applications, why would they switch from one they already have if that application meets their needs? Put simply, unless you are a lawyer-techie, you are unlikely to explore for the sake of exploration.

As of first quarter 2007, various studies have shown that IE holds between 79 percent to 85 percent of the market share. Yes, when it first launched the upstart Firefox made quick inroads against IE, but its advancement has surely slowed—and the authors hereby go on record predicting that its advancement is likely to stall out completely with the advent of IE 7, the newest version of Microsoft's browser.

Why IE and Not Firefox?

The early appeal of Firefox was undeniable. A sweet interface, great security and the newfound wonder of "tabbed browsing" made it the darling of the techno-geeks and technology commentators. Even a respectable number of technically inclined lawyers made the jump to Firefox, although the numbers don't seem to have grown much recently.

One of this column's authors (John) is a diehard Firefox user, but the other (Sharon) tried it and abandoned it. Why? Simply because there are a goodly number of sites that were designed for IE and consequently they don't perform well in Firefox. So, rather than hopping back and forth between the two browsers based on a given site's design, it was just easier to stick with IE across the board.

What about the fact that Firefox is supposed to be more secure? Isn't that something that should particularly appeal to a lawyer? It's true that in the beginning, Firefox was a relatively safe haven, left undisturbed by the virus writers of the world. But as its market share rose and its anonymity faded, the malware writers happily turned their malevolent attention to it. And while it is still probably true that Firefox is more secure than IE, version 7 of IE makes some great security strides.

Most notably, there is a new anti-phishing filter that should appeal to lawyers as well as to everyone else. Although we have heard some complaints about this filter slowing down the surfing, it certainly hasn't been apparent to us. We'll note, though, that we generally have very current technology, so it may be that the filter tends to slow things on older systems.

Something that many will probably not like about IE, however, is its brand-new interface. Lawyers tend to groan when forced to use new things and version 7 certainly presents a very different design. But don't panic if you upgrade—nothing is monumentally hard here. It's mainly that old functions have been moved to new places and there is a small learning curve. You just need to spend a few quiet moments with your new browser and learn how to manipulate it. Figure 2 provides a preview of what the new interface looks like.

Where Version 7 Packs Its Punches

So what should you be particularly alert to in IE's redesign? High on the list is a primary page it has taken from rival Firefox. Most of the lawyers we know who moved to Firefox have loved, above all else, its tabbed browsing feature. That feature enables users to have tabs (looking like file folder tabs) showing multiple open Web pages and making it very easy to move between active Web sessions. Conversely, previous versions of IE required you to go to the bottom of your screen, click on the IE box, find the Web site you opened earlier, and then click on the entry to bring the site back on screen. The new version of IE cuts the legs off of that terrific Firefox feature by adroitly matching it.

Tabbed browsing in IE 7 is a snap. Take a look at the screenshot in Figure 2 and you'll see a small gray tab next to the currently open tab. When you click on that gray tab, you can open a new site—wherein yet another gray tab will appear. (You can also use the Ctrl+T keyboard shortcut, just like in Firefox, to open a new tabbed browser window if you prefer.) We have opened as many as 20 tabbed sites at once without any problems. And there is an especially neat feature whereby you can save a number of open sites in a "Favorites" file so that—with a single click—all those tabbed sites open simultaneously for you. Plus the tabs can be easily reordered, another significant bonus.

Confused about how you would use the tabbing feature? Here's a quick example. Suppose that during the day you periodically check CNN's site, a weather site, a stock site, Westlaw and a sports site. If you save those five sites in a Favorites file, you can come in each morning and make one click on that file—all five sites will automatically open up with tabs at the top so you can very easily move between them. Pretty nice, eh? IE 7 may stop the bleed-off of those users who may have moved to Firefox for this feature alone.

Other new features that will appeal to many users include an RSS reader and a Favorites Center with a quick "Add to Favorites" button. Version 7 also includes the new ClearType technology—which renders page fonts as sharp as those printed on paper—and it includes zoom technology, too. The Zoom feature lets you use hot keys and preset sizes to present your Web pages at the size you want. Printing is also greatly enhanced. Now pages are automatically shrunk to fit on the printed page, a nifty capability lacking in previous versions of IE and another reason lawyers jumped to Firefox. Beware, however—you may want to preview before printing because you can sometimes end up with microscopic text.

The Victor Gets the Spoils

Overall, it is true that IE 7 lacks some of the cutting-edge features of Firefox 2 and Opera 9. IE does not include search engine suggestions, live feeds within bookmarks, session restore capacity, inline spell-checking, desktop widgets or read-the-page aloud features. But ultimately, as cool as they are, these features are not the kinds of bread-and-butter ones that busy lawyers crave. Frankly, with the advent of tabbed browsing, it seems increasingly unlikely that lawyers will find much reason to search for an alternative to IE. Although when it comes to standards compliance, while IE 7 is better than its predecessors, it still falls short of Firefox. As an example, Firefox 1.5 is 93 percent compliant with the CSS (Cascade Style Sheet) 2.1 specification, while IE 7 is 54 percent compliant. Still, despite the compliance shortfall, Microsoft has successfully produced browsing software that, again, will keep most users in the fold.

No doubt, as a significant cadre of learned commentators have remarked, there are better browsers than IE. But BETA was better technically than VHS, and we all know the ending to that story. So, if there has been a browser war going on, IE has emerged the victor. It has successfully defended itself against all challengers and left them only modest territories of their own. In the words of Bertrand Russell, "War does not determine who is right—only who is left."