Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tech Tuesday - Internet Browsers

As I finish my first month of Indiana Dillmans blogging, I'm looking at the statistics of who (anonymous aggregate data) is looking at my blog, and I'm interested by several things I see about the traffic data.  We techy types are interested in this sort of information, but I realize not everyone cares which browsers are used most, or what percentage of traffic comes from Macintosh computers.  For those of you writing your own blogs, though, this information is very important and potentially affects your readership.

The first odd thing that caught my attention is that I apparently have one or more followers in South Korea.  Huh?  Who are you, and how did you find my blog, and what were you looking for when you found it, and are you enjoying it?  Since this data is in aggregate, it may just be a search engine over there collecting and indexing my blog, but I like to think there's someone there reading my words.

The next thing I noted, and this was a professional curiosity thing, is that almost a quarter of you are reading my blog using the Internet Explorer browser.  As 61% of you are reaching me from Windows-based PC's, and Internet Explorer (IE) is only available on Windows PC's, that means fairly close to half of you running Windows are using IE. Now, I realize that IE is pre-installed with Windows, but is there another reason so many of you are using IE?  As any tech worth their salt will tell you, IE is a very outdated platform, and very insecure.  In fact, switching to ANY other browser immediately closes a major avenue of malware infection, ActiveX.

ActiveX is a Microsoft scripting language that came along back in the Windows 95 days.  MS created it to make it easy for developers to create software for Windows.  ActiveX can be used to access the heart of Windows, although it's been reined in a bit by later security fixes in later versions of Windows (Vista and 7).  How does this relate, you ask?  Well, Internet Explorer was specifically allowed to access and use the ActiveX subsystem, which gives it a tunnel into Windows itself.  Now, this in itself is not a bad thing, it allows for some easy programming to do some very powerful stuff.  It may be partly responsible for the rapid rate of Internet adoption in the late 90's and early 2000's as many websites used it to add functionality.  But that ease of use also translates to making it easy for the bad guys to write malware targeting IE and Windows using ActiveX.  No other browser I have seen uses ActiveX.  That means no other browser has this vulnerability.  In this day and age, we need to close all of the security holes we can, and this one is very easy to close.  The answer: Use any browser other than IE.

It used to be that a number of websites used to require using IE, such as banks, etc.  This was specifically because they used the ActiveX interface to do what they do, whether it was banking, or ticket sales or whatever.  Today this is not the case.  Very few sites require ActiveX anymore.  Most have switched to Java or other programming alternatives with very good (and cross-platform) results.  As the Macintosh has become more popular, this was a requirement, as IE is not available no Macs or Linux-based machines.  As a vendor, you want to make it as easy as possible for people to spend their money with you, right?  Okay, the site needs to be as widely available as possible, and that means Mac and Linux as well as Windows.  (This applies to blogs, as well, even if it's only readers you're after, and not money!)  This point is only emphasized further by the recent addition of mobile phone and tablet computer users.  Not only do we have to eliminate proprietary programming, we also need to make the site layout flexible to handle small screens.

Another problem with IE is that it's outdated.  Microsoft let IE6 stand for many years without a major update, during a time when the Internet and other browsers were making rapid strides in terms of user friendliness and capability.  Only relatively recently has MS realized their mistake and begun trying to catch up with newer versions.  IE is now up to version 8, which does go some way toward modernizing the IE browser's capabilities, but it still remains the slowest, least capable browser of the major players.  IE 7 and 8 introduced a new minimalist interface in mimicry of other browsers, which can render IE6 users lost and confused when looking for familiar settings and buttons.  IE 9 is in beta testing, but won't be released soon, and still lags in speed tests.  An add-on system is being introduced, but currently there are no add-ons available that I am aware of.  You get what you get, and that's it.

Okay, IE is bad.  What's the alternative?  Fortunately, you have several.  Chief among those is Mozilla's Firefox browser.  This is a descendant (Hey! A genealogy reference!) of the old Netscape browser you may remember from a decade and more ago.  It's since grown into a major rival to IE, and is the browser with the most add-ons at this point.  Using add-ons, you can customize what your browser can do for you.  Firefox is fast and efficient out of the box, but adding a ton of add-ons can slow it down.  Pick and choose carefully, and it's still an excellent browser choice.  I personally use Firefox as my browser of choice.

Another alternative is Google's Chrome browser, which was inspired by Firefox and others.  It's very fast and efficient.  It also has an add-on system, though being younger, it has fewer choices than Firefox currently.  That means hundreds, as opposed to thousands.  It's catching up.  I've used Chrome, and it has some neat features going for it.  Many techy sorts have switched to this as their main broswer.

If you're using a Mac, chances are you're using Safari, the browser that ships in MacOS. It's a capable browser, to be sure, but many Mac users have switched to Chrome or Firefox, both of which are cross-platform.  That's another benefit of switching away from IE - if you use more than just Windows, then a cross-platform browser will look and feel the same on all of those platforms, instead of having to get used to separate browser interfaces on each platform.  Safari has recently become cross-platform as well, since Apple released a version of Safari for Windows, but Windows users have been slow to adopt it.

The point of all of this is that I would strongly encourage you to switch to any browser other than IE.  It's not a Microsoft bashing thing, it's really about the safety of your Windows and your data.  Malware is hard enough to fight without giving it an easy way in.

Are you still using Internet Explorer?  If so, why?  Are there particular things for which you need IE?  Let me know in the comments below!

* All images courtesy of Photobucket.

Tech Tuesday – Have you stumbled upon a piece of technology or new Web-based application that would be of interest to your fellow genealogy colleagues? Post at your blog on Tech Tuesday and show us the ins and outs of this technology and how it can benefit the genealogy community.  This is a new series suggested by Donna Peterson of Hanging with Donna and in the past there have been many iterations of this series: the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) blog Narations as well as The Family Curator by Denise Levenick.  (Blurb shamelessly stolen from Thomas McEntee at Geneabloggers!)