Firefox, an Alternative

With Windows XP Service Pack 2, Microsoft updated Internet Explorer adding some much needed security features. These features go a long way towards protecting users from viruses, malware and spyware. However, these features have yet to find their way into other Microsoft operating systems such as Windows 98, ME and 2000. Fortunately, if you're using one of these earlier operating systems, there is an alternative.

Firefox is a free web browser which runs on many operating systems including most flavors of Windows and Mac. Firefox is developed by the Mozilla Foundation and can be downloaded from their Web site.

The Mozilla Foundation was formed out of the ashes of Netscape. As such, their initial product took the form of a full suite of Internet software, including a web browser, e-mail client, news group reader, and much more. With Firefox, Mozilla changed direction, focussing on a standalone Web browser which provides a streamlined browsing experience.

Many Firefox advocates argue that Firefox is "better" or "safer" than Internet Explorer with little qualification. In point of fact, there have been numerous bugs and a handful of vulnerabilities in Firefox since its official release last year. This is despite the fact that Firefox started out from a fairly mature code base.

However, one of the subtle virtues of Firefox is that it's not built into the operating system whereas Internet Explorer is built into Windows. Firefox sits on top of the operating system. This means that Firefox exploits should be shallower than those in IE. In other words, though Firefox may have no more or less vulnerabilities than IE, its basic design should expose less of the system to attackers.

Similarly, Firefox does not support ActiveX, the plug-in technology used by Internet Explorer. Since many attacks against Internet Explorer exploit vulnerabilities in ActiveX, Firefox users will be safe from these specific forms of attack.

It is worth noting that the lack of ActiveX support means that some sites will not work correctly in Firefox. This includes the Microsoft Windows Update site. However, most major plug-ins are available for Firefox, including Macromedia Flash, Real Player and Java. Nevertheless, Firefox users may find that they need to occasionally revert back to Internet Explorer for certain sites.

Firefox also offers several features not found in most current versions of Internet Explorer, including tabbed browsing, a pop-up blocker, and a simple download manager. Many of these features are geared more for advanced users. Fortunately, Firefox keeps the interface simple: features that you don't use will not be in your way.

If you're still getting good mileage out of your existing computer and don't particularly feel like shelling out more money to Microsoft for Windows XP, you might want to check out Firefox. It will provide a safer browsing experience on earlier versions of Windows, and you might even find a new feature or two that you like.

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