When continuing assaults from viruses, spam, pop-up ads and adware made Internet use almost intolerable in my teacher-son Karl's K-12 school in Massachusetts, the staff changed Web browsers from Internet Explorer to Firefox and the problems decreased significantly. The changeover was quick and easy, thanks to a setup wizard that walked people through the process, and the new browser imported previous settings including passwords and favorite sites.
"We were able to start using Firefox immediately," he says, "and our annoying pop-up ads dropped to zero."
The near total domination of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser--which the Web metrics firm WebSideStory estimates was close to 97 percent last year--made IE a high-profile target for Internet attacks that also exploited its known security gaps. And in spite of the rapid development of online technology, IE was also criticized for not releasing a major upgrade in three years. School users therefore started turning to alternative browsers including Mozilla, Opera, Safari and the increasingly popular Firefox.
Firefox runs on Linux computers as well as Windows and Mac machines, and was developed as an "open-source" grassroots effort involving thousands of volunteers. When version 1.0 was released in November, it was downloaded more than 12 million times in the first three months alone, and quickly grabbed nearly 5 percent of the market.
The "Spread Firefox" Web site documents how supporters are promoting the new browser, and school systems throughout the United States have adopted the program. For example, the Web site of Washington's Cusick School District states, "Download the Firefox browser for a better experience on our site," and the site of School District #104 in Illinois proclaims, "The Firefox Web browser is safer than Internet Explorer, better at blocking pop-ups, fast, and free." And teachers in Michigan's Pinconning Area School District were even asked to return their laptops to have software with Firefox installed to "prevent disrupting the district network with viruses and other malware."
But beyond trying the lower-profile browsers to decrease many of the problems that plague the Internet, the upstart programs also bring compelling features to schools that are not available on older browsers. For example, "tabbed browsing" offered by Firefox and Opera allows teachers and students to designate groups of Web pages on topics of interest that open automatically when the browsers are launched. The most useful sites are therefore available immediately, and users can shift from one to another by clicking on-screen tabs for each resource. Other valuable innovations for school research applications include drop-down customized lists of search tools, and integrated support for Real Simple Syndication, so browsers can receive Web-based alerts whenever new content is added to subscribed sites. Users can therefore follow breaking news stories without having to visit Web sites to look for new information.
The innovations among the challenger browsers will benefit all Internet users, as browsers are upgraded and new entries become available. For example, Internet Explorer crushed Netscape in the '90s as the browser of choice, by bundling IE as part of Windows, but Netscape is now back with RSS support and "antiphishing" technology that resists identity theft. Microsoft also released multiple patches to tighten the security of IE, and will launch an upgraded browser before the next version of Windows in 2006. Similarly, Opera is adding voice-activated features, and America Online is reportedly preparing its own standalone browser.
But while the new browsers will not be accepted universally--Washington's Snohomish School District rejected Firefox for "lacking support and interoperability with other installed software"--they offer clear advantages that your staff should consider. The browser wars are a boon to us all.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.