Web Browser Faceoff

Written by Alex Iskold and edited by Richard MacManus.

browsers

The last few weeks have been packed with browser action and the two market leaders, Internet Explorer and Firefox, have launched major new versions. So to round out our recent browser coverage, we present the Web Browser Faceoff - looking at how all the main browsers compare with each other in terms of features and innovation. We are basically looking for what is unique, interesting - and missing - in each browser.

Right now Microsoft still holds onto its huge market lead, but Firefox is gaining more ground every month. Probably more importantly, there are other major innovators in the browser space - such as the social browser Flock (a Read/WriteWeb sponsor) and the perennial innovator Opera. The Mac browser Safari of course has many passionate supporters, while new kid Maxthon is one to watch.

Regardless of who will prevail in the 'browser 2.0 wars', the users will win. While fighting each other, the browser makers innovate and simplify. They increase our productivity by integrating into the browser web concepts such as search, RSS, OPML, microformats and more. The core browsers are getting slimmer and faster, while extensions that cover a wide range of services are being developed by external parties.

Internet Explorer 7.0

Internet Explorer 7.0 is a major release from Microsoft, after nearly 5 years of silence. We just recently profiled this browser and concluded that it is solid - and even an exciting release, at least compared to its predecessor. Clearly Microsoft felt great pressure from Firefox to come up with the upgrade. 

This release is mostly good. There are major improvements like Tabbed Browsing, beefed up security, support for RSS, built in search engines and better interfaces for bookmarks and history. Oddly, there are still some leftovers from IE6 - the major one being the in-page search box, which is nearly impossible to use.

Pros: Big improvement over IE6, nice user interface, very good RSS support.
Cons: Leftovers from previous release, performance is not great, not fully compliant with standards.
Faceoff bottom line: Solid release, which is going to help Microsoft maintain the market leadership in the near future

Firefox

Firefox just launched its 2.0 release. We covered the launch extensively with a Firefox 2.0 product review, an interview with Mozilla exec Chris Beard and a Firefox marketing discussion post. Firefox 2.0 impresses with its speed, stability and coolness. Mozilla has managed to create both a thriving community and strong extension ecosystem, that drives both improvements and market share. Firefox also has many great productivity features - like search engine integration, in-page search, simple RSS integration and tabs. It excels in overall usability, security and accessibility.

Pros: Great performance and feature set.
Cons: No built-in RSS reader, no hugely innovative features (like Flock) - so arguably not distinct enough from IE7.
Faceoff bottom line: We think that Firefox is going to continue narrowing IE's lead, but await with interest the next major version!

Safari

No browser faceoff would be complete without Safari, the browser for MacOS. Like all things Apple, Safari has cool features - but it still feels like a 'web 1.0' browser. The most impressive feature is RSS integration. For each page that contains an RSS feed, Safari presents a handy search bar which allows the user to find entries by date, category and many other criteria. It also has built-in spelling - a feature that was just recently added to Firefox. The bookmarks and history are nice, but unexciting. Tabs are not enabled by default and there are no integrations with web services.

Pros: Simple, relatively fast, good RSS support.
Cons: Lacks web service integrations and productivity features.
Faceoff bottom line: It's a clean and simple web 1.0 browser, but needs a major feature boost in order to be a contender even on the Mac.

Opera

Opera 9.0 is an interesting browser. It has a lot of good features, nice add-on infrastructure and a strong community. In terms of basic features it is not far off from Firefox. It is also fast and responsive, which makes us wonder why it is not used by more people. The answer, we think, is due to a couple of things. First the default skin and some UI elements are bit contrived. They look like a blend of future and past - and overall there is a lack of harmony. 

The marketing of the browser has not been as strong, at least for desktop - since this browser has been focusing primarily on the mobile space lately. On a positive note, there is fairly complete RSS integration - including a built-in RSS reader. The URL toolbar and home buttons are done in a very clever and convenient way. Tabs are done well (and as a R/WW commenter noted recently, Opera had tabs even before Firefox). One other interesting thing about Opera are the desktop widgets. We found them to be cool, but somewhat unrelated to the browser since they run on the desktop.

Pros: Rich feature set, RSS integration, fast
Cons: Lacks coolness factor of Firefox, not as well known - but maybe an unfair comparison since Firefox is open source
Faceoff bottom line: We can see why fans like this browser, but a bigger future depends on spicing it up and poring in the marketing dollars.

Flock

Flock is the newest and perhaps the most exciting browser on the market today. This Firefox-based browser has taken the concept of browsing to the next level by radically integrating support for web services. For example, stock browser feature bookmarks have been replaced in Flock by integration with del.icio.us. Flock also features support for online photo sharing sites like Flickr and Photobucket. 

Flock comes with a built-in Blog editor, which supports many blogging services including WordPress, Blogger and MovableType. There is also a built-in RSS reader, which is one of the best RSS readers on the market in our opinion. The innovation goes beyond the service integration, since Flock also includes interesting new UI elements like TopBar - which is an improved search box and scratch area for storing web snippets.

Pros: del.icio.us and Flickr integrations, built in blog editor, RSS reader, cool UI
Cons: Cloned Firefox code base, making it more work to make compatible add-ons.
Faceoff bottom line: Great productivity browser for web 2.0

Maxthon

We thought it would be worthwhile to profile the China-based Maxthon browser, which had over 55 million downloads by May 2006 - at which point it received an investment from Charles River Ventures. This browser is based on the IE engine and it claims to be 100% compatible with it. The first thing we noted is that the install was super fast, just a few seconds. 

The Maxthon browser comes with many pre-installed plugins, mostly for integrating with web 2.0 services like del.icio.us, Digg and Technorati. The look and feel resembles Internet Explorer 6, with the addition of tabs and a sidebar for plugins. The UI is not great and we noticed a few hickups, but the integration with web 2.0 services is very impressive - at least from a purely features point of view. Consistency is achieved by placing all integrations into the sidebar and adding a vertical control for toggling between them. Besides these plugins there are many other features - perhaps too many, which could also be the cause of slow page loads.

Pros: Impressive integration with the latest web 2.0 services.
Cons: Too many features, lacks coolness factor, slow.
Faceoff bottom line: Need to apply Occam's Razor (i.e. make it simpler), but definitely could be a contender because of solid service integration.

Summary

In one of his recent posts on ZDNet, Richard published statistics on the current browser market share. According to his post, IE still maintains a strong lead but Firefox is gaining ground - particularly in US. Looking at the browsers reviewed in this post, we can be certain that a lot more innovation will come over the next few years. Each of these browsers brings a unique, interesting approach - which will fuel the competition between them. 

Whatever happens, we as users are certain to see better browsers that are focused on productivity and web services. Even though IE and Firefox are far ahead today, we see that other browser like Flock and Maxthon are ramping up support for the latest web 2.0 services - making themselves stand out and attracting early adopters.

Faceoff bottom line: This round of browser competition is going to be at least as interesting as the Netscape vs. IE ten years ago. And hopefully less one-sided!

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