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Browser Wars

by Drew Dunn
2002/03/20

Believe it or not, there may be a war brewing over your Linux desktop, but the warriors are some of the quietest you've ever seen!

Everybody knows about the Microsoft-Netscape browser wars that ultimately led to the anti-trust decision against Microsoft last year. As acrimonious and vocal as the participants were, the Linux browser warriors are virtually the opposite!

Who is fighting for the hearts and minds of Linux web users everywhere? Surprisingly, a number of organizations. I took a quick journey around the web just to see what was out there. From the old standby, Netscape, to less familiar names, the products available (mostly for free!) are turning into some real powerhouses...and they may give you one more reason to turn away from Windows.

First up on the list is Netscape Navigator. Actually, Netscape is a full Internet suite (Netscape Communicator), supporting a wide variety of operating systems. What do you get besides a web browser? How about an email client, news client, basic HTML composer and the usual array of extras like spell checking.

Netscape's web site is a little tricky to get around because it seems to have turned into yet another be-all, end-all portal sites, but dig a little and you'll find that the latest version for Linux (as of the middle of March) is 6.2.1.

What does it do that's good? The interface is the classic Navigator that virtually everyone has seen and used. Plugin support is extraordinarily good. If you download the full suite, you'll get a ton of Internet tools that all work together. And it's regularly updated (and available for a huge variety of operating systems).

What's bad? It crashes. It crashes at completely unpredictable times for completely unpredictable reasons. And it's not the fastest program in the world. I found that occaisionally the browser would inexplicably freeze, causing every other Netscape application to freeze until the browser started up again. And likewise for mail, too. This isn't anything new, though...it's a problem that's plagued Netscape since the beginning. Also, for some reason, whenever the window is resized, it insists upon re-rendering...a real time killer. Netscape doesn't make the source code available.

Next up, Mozilla, the "free" brother of Netscape. Mozilla has been in development for several years. Originally, it was to have been something of a collaborative work amongst programmers around the world, but in reality, it's been pretty much done by the gang at mozilla.org. Nonetheless, it's an improvement on Navigator, even though it does look pretty much the same.

You can find the latest version at mozilla.org. Version numbers seem to be a moving target these days, but at last report, they were within a few months of releasing version 1.0. The version that I tried, 0.9.9, includes pretty much everything that came with Netscape Communicator.

What's good about it? Pretty much everything that was good about Navigator. It also handles a niggling problem with text that I have: the darned words are too small! But I can hold down the "alt" key and spin my mouse's wheel and the text gets bigger. And that's much better than having to get reading glasses! Also, the source code is freely available.

Is there anything bad? Well, pretty much the same stuff as Navigator, except that Mozilla doesn't crash nearly as much. In fact, I use Mozilla as my email client...the email program has never crashed and it works quite nicely, even supporting multiple email accounts.

Now let's turn our attention south of the Equator. Opera is a browser from Australia. I first started using it on my Sun Sparcstation that runs Solaris. Currently, version 6.0 is in public beta.

Opera has taken an interesting, if not novel, method of distribution. You can pony up the registration fee and buy a license or you can download an "adware" version of the software that displays a banner-type ad in the upper right corner. The ad rotates every few seconds.

Opera has more of an Internet Explorer feel to it, but it's really a creature of its own. One very nice feature for us Linux users is that it will identify itself to web servers as something it's not...for instance, the screenshot below shows Opera identifying itself as Internet Explorer 5.0; a useful feature for those poorly designed web sites that are Microsoft-centric. It supports Java either natively or through Sun's Java Runtime Extensions.

Opera is for the web...there is no email client, no newsreader, nothing extra. It does the web and it does it well. Rendering is fast, the program, even in beta, is very stable. It's very much as if a group of programmers sat down and asked themselves what they would like to see in a browser, then set out to build it.

Still, it's not all wine and roses. Plugin support, while present, isn't as broad as Netscape's. Still, it does support at least Flash and Acrobat (and a few others), so the terrain isn't as bleak as it could be. And, as mentioned before, Opera isn't a full-fledged Internet suite...it's a web browser and nothing more. Also, for the purists amongst us, Opera's source code is not freely available.

Last on this list is Konquerer. If you use KDE, you have Konquerer installed. This software is nicely integrated with KDE. The system windows, such as the online help system and the file manager use Konquerer as their interface.

Konquerer is still a work in progress, but it's made some significant strides as of the current release (2.1.1). It supports Java via the Blackdown JDK and will work with many Netscape plugins. There are still some rendering problems (as you can see in the screenshot...look at the Free PC Tech keyboard at the top), but since Konquerer is the new kid on the block, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing.

Konquerer doesn't exactly have any extras built into it, but, of course, virtually everthing that comes with Netscape Communicator has an analog in KDE. Perhaps the most annoying thing to me about Konquerer is that its text rendering isn't nearly as sharp and clear as Opera's.

So which browser would I recommend? Well, the diplomat in me says that they're all quite good, but I think that as a pure web browser, Opera has the edge. Netscape Communicator and Mozilla, despite their enormous disk footprint offer the most features and Konquerer has the best integration with KDE. So take my recommendations as a starting point and do your own exploring.

Netscape Communicator: http://www.netscape.com

Mozilla: http://www.mozilla.org

Opera: http://www.opera.com

Konquerer: http://www.kde.org

 

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