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Published: Saturday, 4/9/2005

IE s stranglehold loosens

Internet Explorer (IE) is not the only way to get on the Internet. There are alternative web browsers, which are available free. Millions of people are giving IE competitors like Firefox, Opera, and the newly reintroduced Netscape a try.

The figures hint at a war of the browsers.

Last year 95.5 percent of the computers in the United States used IE. By February 2005, IE s market share dropped to 89.9 percent.

Although most companies would be delighted to have such a popular product, IE s manufacturer, the Microsoft Corp., is worried at the defections. Microsoft plans to hustle out an updated version of the program, IE 7.0, later this year. It will include new security features and be part of another Windows XP Service Pack that can be downloaded from the Internet.

Security concerns are not the only reason why people turn to other browsers. Programs like Firefox (www.mozilla.org), Opera (www.opera), and Netscape (http://browser.netscape.com/nsb/download/default.jsp) offer a different web environment and experience than IE. They can be faster in downloading web pages and better in blocking nuisances like popup advertisements.

IE also lacks modern features like Multiple Document Interface -- tabbed browsing, -- a wonderful convenience that allows you to visit several different Web sites without opening multiple browser windows.

Many people clearly prefer those features and enhanced security to the old standby features in IE.

The favorite seems to be Mozilla Foundation s Firefox. More than 25 million people have downloaded the program during the last year. Opera Software claims 20 million downloads of the Opera browser in 2004.

Some of Firefox s most attractive features, including tabbed browsing, were introduced by Opera. There are other similarities, differences, and annoying quirks among the alternative browsers.

The built-in search feature in Netscape, for instance, automatically runs Netscape s own search engine and is difficult to re-configure, while Firefox and Opera allow users to easily switch to Yahoo!, Google, and others.

Some web sites are designed only for IE and will not open with other browsers. That s not a big problem, since you can keep multiple browsers on the same computer. When a site won t open, just switch back to IE.

Web sites for the alternative browsers have information on the features. It s also a good idea to check reviews done by computer magazines. Just keyboard terms like Firefox reviews or Opera browser reviews into a search engine. Some of them rank Firefox or Opera as far better than IE.

Check user reviews, as well. Bear in mind, however, that people who are annoyed with a product may be most likely to send in comments.

Don t worry about having to re-configure the new browser to suit your own tastes. The alternative browsers import your bookmarks/favorites, stored passwords, and a variety of other existing settings from Internet Explorer.

It s easy to uninstall a browser after a test drive: Windows Start Button, Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs.

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