IE8 vs Firefox 3.5: The browser wars continue

Features in Internet Explorer and Firefox run neck and neck. Will a victor emerge? It may come down to convenience.

Every day I sit at my computer and open two browsers: Firefox and Internet Explorer (first 6, then 7 and, as of late, 8). "Why do I do that?" I've often asked myself. It's been going on for years. I maintain two separate "browser lives," in a sense. Firefox opens my Yahoo and Gmail mail accounts. Internet Explorer is aimed at my banking and stock trading accounts. I have news sites as part of the home pages for both browsers. One is CNN (for my serious news) and the other is MSN (more for entertainment tidbits). Yes, I'm living a dual browser life, and I know I'm not alone.

Yesterday, however, I made up my mind to drop Firefox altogether. I wrote a chapter for my upcoming "Windows 7 Spotlight" book on Internet Explorer 8, and I was so impressed by the features that I decided Firefox was history. Yesterday morning, I found out that Firefox released the 3.5 beta (4), and many features are the same as in IE8. And so the personal war rages on.

[ Which browser is more secure? InfoWorld's Roger A. Grimes puts them to the test. ]

Where IE8 and Firefox 3.5 are similar
Let's take a look at some of the features that they each have.

Obviously they both possess a multiple-tab capability. Personally, I like that IE has a tab waiting for you to click to open. Google Chrome has that as well. Firefox now has a little plus sign to allow the same functionality -- a small but important improvement I've been waiting for.

IE8 has a feature called InPrivate Browsing, which prevents IE from storing data about your browsing sessions, including cookies, temporary Internet files, history, and other data.  I've used this mode at conferences while on kiosk machines, and it adds to my comfort level, even though I still cannot help but delete browsing history whenever I access a public machine. Likewise, Firefox 3 has Private Browsing, which provides the same functionality and does not retain visited pages, form and search bar entries, passwords, cookies, temporary or cached Internet files, and so forth.

They both offer at least one superscary privacy-invasion tool. In the case of IE8, it is called Suggested Sites, where your browsing history is sent to Microsoft to compare to related Web sites; then a link in your Favorites Bar offers "suggestions" to help you find new items. This feature is something that many (most) people are not pleased about. Microsoft said it will not store this information, but at the same time, Windows Help and Support information says that even items deleted from your browsing History "will be retained by Microsoft for a period of time to help improve our products and services." In Firefox, there is Location Aware Browsing (aka geolocation), where Firefox takes your IP address, information about nearby wireless access points, and a temporary cookie-like identifier and passes that off to Google (through an encrypted SSL connection, if that makes you feel any better) so that searching in Google retrieves results that relate to your current location. If you are searching for pizza, there's no need to type in all the information about where you are. That's something else I opt out of.

What IE8 has that's cool
In addition to their common items, IE8 has some cool features to make browsing and working smoother. These include:

  • Accelerators, which let you do in one (or a few) clicks what it used to take you more clicks, often with cutting and pasting and so forth, to accomplish various tasks. The accelerator tasks include mapping locations and translation of words. You select the text you need and then see a little blue accelerator icon that you can click to obtain directions, a definition, or a translation; to e-mail content; or to search, all with a click or two -- sort of like a contextul menu.
  • Web slices, aka automatic feed updates. If these are turned on, IE8 periodically checks online for updates to specific feeds, much in the same way you might check for RSS feeds for blog posts. IE8 doesn't have to be running for these online checks to occur. A great example would be to monitor the status of a bid at eBay without having an eBay browser window always up. Slices display in your Favorites Bar, and when the item has changed, its text becomes bold.
  • The new SmartScreen Filter (an enhancement to the Phishing Filter) and Compatibility Views, as well as cool features that combine only when working with Windows 7, like Jump Lists and Windows Touch.

What Firefix 3.5 promises
Firefox 3.5 beta 4 touts increased performance and stability with the new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine (where Firefox needs to outdo Chrome and Safari), support for native JSON and Web worker threads, and new Web technologies like HTML5 video and audio features, all of which have developers' mouths watering. I'm confident Firefox will be a solid contender to continue challenging Internet Explorer in the browser wars.

What makes a browser "enterprise-ready"?
One important feature for enterprises is multiple language availability. Firefox currently boasts 70 languages. IE8 currently supports 43, with 20 more coming in the near future.

Another key attribute is controllability by administrators: IE8 uses Microsoft's well-entrenched group policies, a plus. However, for Firefox, there are other ways (some of them free, like FrontMotion's Firefox Community Edition) to enforce settings across your organization through ActiveDirectory using administrative templates -- similar to locking down settings with mozilla.cfg on one computer. You might also consider FirefoxADM from or PolicyPak for Firefox and other Group Policy configuration tools.

Microsoft categorizes browsers as having either Level 1 or Level 2 support for its SharePoint server. Microsoft recommended Level 1 browsers, which were only its own browsers (IE6 and IE7). Level 2 support permitted only basic functionality and encompassed competing browsers such as Firefox 1.5 and Safari 2.0. But that's changing. SP2 for the Microsoft Office 2007 System, which shipped yesterday, provides official support for both IE8 and Firefox 3.0 browsers. With SharePoint becoming a larger staple in intranets of late, this broader support is a plus for those holding back on Firefox deployments due to SharePoint. (Similarly, Exchange 2010 Outlook Web Access also offers broader browser support for the full OWA experience, as opposed to the OWA Lite that Firefox users encountered in the past.)

In life, it may come down to what you know and like. But in the business world, it might come down to what is easiest. With IE8 being a part of Windows 7, it may simply be the de facto enterprise browser because it is what people know and what administrators can count on being included and controllable without any further effort on their part. Then again, Firefox is not all that difficult to deploy and manage these days, and it is well liked.

What will you deploy in your organization? Are IE8's features compelling to retain it as the desktop browser in your enterprise, or are you ready to enter Firefox into your deployment app list?

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.