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IE-based Web browser alternatives

Even before users became concerned about the numerous security bugs in Internet Explorer, a number of companies began issuing Web browser alternatives based on the IE source code. These products came to life for two main reasons. First, the componentized nature of IE made it possible for vendors to create IE-based Web browsers that use the IE rendering engine and can therefore automatically take advantage of any IE feature or stability updates. Second, as IE withered on the vine, so to speak, through a series of lackluster upgrades, third party developers stepped up to the plate to enhance IE in ways that Microsoft likely never even considered. In this part of my look at IE alternatives, we'll examine the world of IE-based Web browser alternatives. But first, let's look at IE's history a bit, and see where Microsoft went wrong.

A bit of history. Or, "how IE lost its groove"

In December 1994, Microsoft revealed that it was working on its own Web browser, which it would eventually bundle into Windows. However, by that point, Windows 95 was then long overdue, and the company decided not to hold back its release date further, but would rather release its Web browser, dubbed Internet Explorer (IE), as part of the Windows 95 Internet Jumpstart Kit (code-named O'Hare), which would debut in Plus! for Windows 95. As I recall it, the summer of 95 was a heady time for Windows 95 beta testers: In addition to near-constant builds of the upcoming OS, we received beta versions of Plus! for Windows 95, Office for Windows 95, and MSN, the Microsoft Network. It was pretty clear that the 32-bit world was coming, and coming quickly.

The original version of IE was pretty unimpressive (Figure 1: IE 1.0 in all its glory), and it shared its now old-fashioned UI with Windows Explorer, the default shell in Windows 95. And IE 1.0 wasn't exactly a deeply integrated product (Figure 2: Now where did we put that browser again?), as is today's IE: Microsoft had licensed the Mosaic browser code from Spyglass, as did many companies, and had basically built a Windows-like shell around that code.

For IE, there was nowhere to go but up. Version 2.0 shipped quickly, in November 2.0, and while it retained the same Windows-like UI of the first version, IE 2.0 added a number of features under the covers that made it more useful, like cookie and SSL support. At this time, I actually started using IE full time, if you can believe it.

Internet Explorer 3.0
By early 1996, Microsoft's plans for IE were getting exciting, particularly for Web developers. In March 1996, the company hosted a live event, telecast to theatres around the US via satellite, in which it explained its plans for IE 3, which would include HTML frame support with additions that made it superior to Netscape's implementation, scripting through Visual Basic Script (VBScript), a (sort-of) new component application layer called ActiveX, and other features. The first alpha version of the browser shipped the day of the event, and was hosted inside the IE 2.0 shell, but the final version of IE 3.0, which shipped in August, was completely different. Now boasting a colorful, extensible user interface, IE 3.0 was the product that put Microsoft on the browser map. From that day forward, IE would gain market share steadily for almost eight straight years. And within two years, it would topple Netscape's hold on the market forever.

It wasn't clear at the time, but IE 3.0 was also Microsoft's first foray into OS bundling. A new version of Windows 95, dubbed Windows 95 OEM Service Release 2 (OSR 2) shipped that fall with new PCs. And future versions of Windows 95, including OSR 2.5, later shipped with newer versions of the browser. Eventually, Microsoft began replacing its retail boxed copies of Windows 95 with IE-enabled versions as well. Things were changing.

Internet Explorer 4.0
1996 also marked another turning point for IE. That summer, as Microsoft plotted the final release of IE 3.0, the company was also working on future versions. Its original plans for IE 4.0 called for the product to include features such as integrated, shell-like access to FTP sites and Site Map, an IE extension that would let you navigate Web sites with a tree view control like the one found in Windows Explorer. Microsoft shipped two versions of the IE 4.0 alpha to testers, including myself, in summer 1996, and then ... nothing. For months, IE 4.0 testers heard nothing but silence from the IE camp. And when Microsoft finally did tip its IE 4.0 hat in early 1997, everything had changed.

That's because Netscape's Marc Andreessen in fall 1996 had (in hindsight, foolishly) referred to Windows as nothing but "a buggy set of device drivers" needed to drive the Netscape platform, and the company announced a sweeping set of technology initiatives that would include a Windows desktop replacement called Constellation. Based on Web technologies like HTML and CSS, Constellation would destroy Windows, making it superfluous. To Microsoft, this was a battle cry.

So IE was retooled. Instead of the comparatively lame evolutionary approach it would have taken previously, Microsoft made IE 4.0 the most impressive, revolutionary release of IE ever, with a feature-set taken directly from the Constellation playbook. A preview release of IE 4.0, dubbed IE 4.0 Platform Preview 1 and issued in April 1997, featured a new Active Setup application, a new HTML-like desktop called Active Desktop (Figure 3), an HTML-based Channel Bar filled with third party offers (Figure 4), and other features. But the big news was that IE 4.0 would completely take over the Windows shell. As I wrote in WinInfo at the time, "Microsoft ceded control of the Windows 95 and NT 'shell' (the user interface, such as floating windows, toolbars, and the like) to the Internet Explorer team. All future user interface enhancements will come from the IE team, not the core operating system groups, and the result of their labor is readily apparent when IE 4 shell integration is enabled ... Shell integration is now a useable and desirable component, with numerous options and settings available."

Microsoft followed up its IE 4.0 Platform Preview 1 with a second preview release in June 1997, and then shipped IE 4.0 in October at a gala event in San Francisco, which I attended. The company also announced that all future Windows versions would use the integrated IE shell introduced in IE 4.0. What's ironic is that Netscape's threat--which led to this integration--was hollow. Though the company did announce that its Constellation product would ship in 1997 as Netcaster, part of the Communicator 4.0 browser suite, it was continually delayed and, when released, barely worked as advertised. A future version of Constellation, code-named Mercury, was to have completed the Constellation "vision" and add all the desktop-replacement stuff, but it never happened. In short, Netscape had crashed and burned. And with IE 4.0, Microsoft finally eclipsed its foe.

IE 4.0 eventually shipped as part of Windows 98 the following year, but by that time, Microsoft was rapidly moving to IE 5.0.

Internet Explorer 5.x
Throughout 1998, Microsoft released various beta versions of IE 5.0, including a Developer Preview and a Public Preview, each of which highlighted the product's new features, such as new CSS 2.0 support, bidirectional printing, XML support, an Internet Radio toolbar, and so on. But IE 5.0 wasn't a huge release by any standard, and probably should have been issued as IE 4.5. Also notable was the amount of time it took to ship this relatively unimpressive upgrade: The final version didn't ship until March 1999. Interestingly, Windows 2000 shipped with a beta version of IE 5.0, though Windows 98 Second Edition (SE), which hit that summer, included an updated build of the final version.

In mid-2000, Microsoft then issued Windows Millennium Edition (Me) with a pre-release version of IE 5.5; the update to IE 5.x later shipped that June. IE 5.5 was another lackluster release, with a new print preview feature, some small Web development enhancements, and ... not much else. By this time it was pretty obvious that Microsoft was putting the brakes on IE development. Its market dominance now assured, IE was settling nicely into maintenance mode.

Internet Explorer 6
In March 2001, Microsoft announced IE 6.0. "This will be a huge step for consumers and Web sites," IE product unit manager Michael Wallent said at the time. Nothing could have been further from the truth: IE 6.0 was yet another half-hearted IE release, with few new features. It was bundled with the October 2001 release of Windows XP, and followed by an IE 6.0 SP1 release a year later. In short, IE development had basically ceased, and though Microsoft recently revealed that it had resuscitated its IE team and was working on new versions, the first of which will appear in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2) next month, IE had long ago become stagnant, with few new features, despite mounting competition from Opera, Mozilla, and other companies. But into this void, a slew of IE-based Web browser alternatives have appeared. And though most of them don't address IE's mounting security concerns, all of them offer IE users something Microsoft hasn't done since 1997: Add innovative new features.

Maxthon (MyIE2)

The most popular IE-based browser, from what I can tell, is Maxthon, which used to be called MyIE. I base this opinion on the sheer number of emails I've received from MyIE users. That said, I'm not overly impressed with this product. Yes, it adds a number of critical features to IE, providing users with the benefits of the IE rendering engine combined with functionality Microsoft still refuses to address. But because MyIE--excuse me, Maxthon--does nothing to address the security problems with IE, using Maxthon can expose you to the same security vulnerabilities you'd get if you simply used IE. What's the point in that?

Here are some of the more interesting features available in Maxthon (Figure 5).

Tabbed browsing. Like most IE alternatives, Maxthon offers up a nice tabbed browsing experience. I especially like the way it handles switching between pages: Like other tabbed browsing solutions, you hit CTRL+TAB to switch between open pages, but it throws up a handy dialog (Figure 6) that helps you pick the correct page. Nice!

Mouse gestures. This is another feature I've seen in other non-IE browsers, and it's one that power users will be sure to love. Mouse gestures lets you configure your mouse to perform certain tasks in response to particular movements (Figure 7). So, for example, if you gesture "up" with your mouse, Maxthon will scroll up one virtual page in the current document; if you gesture up and to the left, it will navigate to the previous window. And so on.

Ad Hunter pop-up blocking. Again, it's another feature from every browser on earth but IE: Maxthon's pop-up blocking feature, dubbed Ad Hunter, kills annoying pop-up ads. But it also does more. It can kill Flash-based ads, floating ads, image ads, whatever (Figure 8). This added functionality makes this feature a lot more useful than it is on other browsers.

Privacy protection. Maxthon includes more thorough privacy protection controls than any browser I've seen. You can set it up to delete your undo list, address list, search bar history, history, cache, cookies, and/or form data every time you close the browser, or use a menu to delete any of this information on the fly (Figure 9).

Customizable. Like many IE alternatives, Maxthon lets you apply different skins to alter the look and feel of the browser. Frankly, my impression is that the product's default look, which is very similar to IE, is a major draw, but I also suspect many users will be happy to see it's possible to change its look and feel. Some of the skins are of extremely high quality too (Figure 10).

Net Snippets. Optionally, you can download a version of Maxthon that includes a feature called Net Snippets), a $30 research-oriented tool Net Snippets lets you grab information such as text, images, links, screen captures and even entire Web site files, using a special toolbar (Figure 11). This appears to be a unique and useful tool, and it's worth checking out if you're using Maxthon or MyIE 2, or, for that matter, any version of IE 5.0 or newer.

In summary, Maxthon offers a number of features Microsoft should be embarrassed to not provide in IE. But as good as it is, I simply can't recommend any IE-based product that doesn't fix the inherent security problems with IE. That said, my next IE-based Web browser alternative is a bit more interesting.

Deepnet Explorer

About two weeks ago, a free and new IE-based Web browser appeared. Intriguingly named dubbed Deepnet Explorer, and similar looking but less complex than Maxthon, this new IE alternative offers a slew of unique features and, of course, better security features than IE. Deepnet Explorer (Figure 12) offers a number of now-common Web browser features I won't highlight in huge detail here--including tabbed browsing, pop-up killing, mouse gestures, auto form fill, and much more. It also offers one-click deactivation of ActiveX control downloading and execution, Java, Web scripting, and other features, making the browser a lot more secure than IE. But Deepnet Explorer offers some interesting features that will likely appeal to power users as well as more typical consumers. Here are some highlights.

Page filtering. Similar in fashion to Maxthon's Ad Hunter, the Deepnet Explorer page filter kills banner ads and Flash animations, which makes sites like CNN.com actually bearable.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) file sharing. Using Deepnet Explorer's unique P2P mode, you can search for files on the Gnutella peer-to-peer file sharing network, and share files of your own (Figure 13). This is still legal?

RSS news aggregation. Really Simple Syndication (RSS) is the latest and greatest Web-based communications technology, and its made Blogs like my Internet Nexus possible. However, RSS is still quite far from being a mainstream technology, with very few mainstream users taking advantage of its features. I feel that this situation may change, though there are debates about whether email client-based solutions (like Newsgator) or standalone applications are more desirable. Deepnet takes a different approach, bundling RSS compatibility into its browser (Figure 14). Stupidly, it's not integrated very well. For example, when you click on an RSS subscribe link on a Web page, Deepnet should (but doesn't) send the link to its News module. Ah well, maybe in the next version.

Currently, Deepnet Explorer is at version 1.1, though a 1.2 beta is also available. Should you try it? If you absolutely must use an IE-based browser, this might be the best of the lot. Still, I can't escape the notion that any IE-based solution is inherently broken. In the end, I recommend Firefox over all the competition. And with that, just one step remains: Removing IE completely. Microsoft says it's impossible. But in the next installment, we'll look at one solution that suggests otherwise.

Coming soon: Remove IE from Windows XP completely.