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Even the Microsoft bashers have to grudgingly admit that Internet Explorer 6 is a very stable, feature-packed browser. But now, with accessibility and web standards very much in vogue, the cracks in IE are beginning to show...
When Microsoft released version 4 of Internet Explorer in 1997, I was one of the early adopters. Within days of installing it, I had removed Netscape's Communicator from my computer and IE4 became not just my default browser, but my only browser.
The feature set, speed and stability of IE4 were stunning compared to its predecessor and destroyed the status quo in browserdom almost overnight. Microsoft's business tactics and infamous bullying of OEM's ensured the massive growth of their market-share in the browser market-place and Netscape quickly became an also-ran as far as the end-user was concerned.
The updates and service packs emerged from Redmond with amazing frequency. IE5 was released in March 1999 and, in August 2001, IE6 was presented to the masses. By that time, Internet Explorer was synonymous with the web.
However, Internet Explorer seems to have stagnated and its future is uncertain. Microsoft's Brian Countryman (Program Manager, Internet Explorer) says, "Legacy OSes have reached their zenith with the addition of IE 6 SP1. Further improvements to IE will require enhancements to the underlying OS."
This seems to imply that IE7 will only be available as part of a new Microsoft operating system which kind of leaves users who don't want (or can't afford) to upgrade out in the cold.
Don't let this bother you in any way. IE is already out-classed by several competing browsers: those based on the "Gecko" rendering engine (Mozilla, Firebird, Camino), Opera, Safari... and you can be sure that there are others just waiting in the wings.
Let's get one thing straight: Internet Explorer is a flawed browser. It's rendering engine is slow compared to its modern counterparts, its standards-compliance is appalling, it's feature-set no longer cutting edge. Having used Firebird since its initial release, I have found nothing that IE can do that Firebird can't. Furthermore, Firebird does it better. The Gecko rendering engine is sublime. It's amazingly fast and, whilst not completely standards-compliant, it's probably the closest of all the current offerings.
On top of all that, Firebird (and, of course, Mozilla) has some great features. For instance, Firebird has "tabbed browsing". This allows you to open links in new "tabs" within the parent window, so you don't have to waste valuable screen real-estate with multiple windows. When described in this way, the feature sounds almost irrelevant, but when you've used it for a little while you really appreciate it. And, as more applications become web-based, tabs are going to be become indispensable.
Tabbed browsing isn't the only worthwhile feature either. Firebird has a very effective "pop-up blocker". You know those annoying websites that you don't visit because they insist on opening a multitude of adverts and "affiliate programmes" in pop-up and pop-under windows? Well fear no more, in the months that I've been using Firebird I haven't seen a single, unwanted pop-up. The system is so effective in fact, that I have had to edit the pop-up blocker to allow certain sites to bypass it. Because, as you know, some websites are so badly designed that they present some of their own content in new windows!
There's another thing I really like about Firebird - it's 100% skinnable. I know that this is a feature that many will dismiss as unimportant, mere eye-candy. But it's not. Think about it, I spend 12-16 hours a day (sad but true) on my computer, the GUI has to be pleasant and visually appealing to me when I am spending so much time working with the machine.
So I bid thee farewell Internet Explorer. You've had your day.
UPDATE (9-Feb-2004): Mozilla Firebird is now Mozilla Firefox!