To many techies, Microsoft (MS) is the 'Evil Empire,' because it possesses monopoly marketshare in several markets.
The Redmond-based software major has a hammerlock on PC operating systems (OS) with its Windows variants. It also dominates office applications where the MS Office suite sets the standard.
Those monopolies were developed naturally through clever marketing that wiped out competition. The domination of the OS market was leveraged into domination of the Internet browser market.
In order to counter competition from Netscape's browser in the mid-1990s, MS started bundling a free Net browser, the Internet Explorer (IE), with every copy of the Windows OS.
Although better free browsers like Netscape and Opera existed, most users couldn't be bothered to download and reset defaults after. They continued to use the bundled IE, which used to implement its own Java and used the wideopen Outlook Express mail client as well.
That attitude has changed with the onslaught of new viruses and hacking programs. Hackers concentrate on finding holes in Windows/IE/Outlook security for much the same reasons that Indian car-thieves concentrate on bypassing Maruti car security systems.
In multiple exploits, various holes and bugs have been used to take over the PCs of individual users, to damage data and to create networks of remote-controlled "zombies". Network security has been compromised across the world and repeated denial of service attacks have changed the security paradigm for network managers.
MS has issued multiple security patches and updates, but these fail to take care of the problems. The hackers have stayed one step ahead.
Ironically, MS has run foul of the same hassle that helped it build its original monopoly: the average user is too lazy to get onto the Net and download large patches to plug holes he is not even aware of. In some cases, security patches and service packs for XP have created backward-compatibility problems for network-users, who have deliberately avoided installation.
This has led to a slow but perceptible move away from MS systems. For instance, Linux has become a popular OS option not for reasons of pricing alone but because it has better security. Users who have tried other browsers have usually reported decent results.
In June, two US federal agencies recommended that users switch browsers. Since then, IE's marketshare has dropped from 95.5 per cent to 92.9 per cent, according to online analysis by WebSideStory.
Most dissatisfied IE users have shifted to a beta version of Firefox, released by the Mozilla Foundation. Mozilla provides the open-source code at the foundation of Netscape. It has previously produced wickedly innovative browsers like Ghostzilla, which was designed for invisible usage and was very useful for office-goers with bosses breathing down their necks.
The first official Firefox 1.0 has just been launched. I've been using the beta version ever since its release alongside Opera 7 and Netscape 7.1. Firefox offers an excellent experience with a look and feel similar to Netscape.
It has several useful features such as tabbed windows, easy and complete control of cookies, pop-ups and downloads, an excellent java console.
Most worthy is the ability to mimic IE when it comes across a site that is designed specifically for IE-users. It has its own mail-management system, which is far more secure than Outlook. It also stops "phishing" tricks such as the opening of a popup in a different browser window.
Firefox is a bigger download (4.7 MB) than Opera (3.94 MB) and runs marginally slower on the same connection. But it's better in terms of security and compatibility. I've never had a problem accessing Netbanking or playing chess online for example and in both cases, Opera has some functionality issues.
I must confess that I haven't used IE since version 6, which came integrated with an utility that tranferred online browsing information to snoop-site Alexa. So I can't compare the browsers directly.
On the other hand, I haven't had a virus or trojan since I started using Firefox. So, I guess that should answer most users' security questions.