After years of sluggish innovation in the Microsoft-dominated world of web browsing, a new open-source internet browser called Firefox has emerged to challenge the software giant’s Internet Explorer (IE). The upstart technology has been garnering attention in schools and colleges in recent months, as ed-tech leaders search for ways to circumvent the latest security holes in Microsoft’s proprietary solution.

Though the Firefox browser enters the fray as a David in the shadow of a Goliath, several ed-tech enthusiasts who spoke with eSchool News said the technology has great potential. Not only is it free, they say, but it also provides a level of security that IE–even with the release of Microsoft’s highly publicized update, Service Pack 2 (SP2)–so far has been unable to achieve.

Built by the Mozilla Foundation, a small but well-known group of computer programmers who reportedly favor the communal spirit of free, open-source software applications over proprietary solutions, Firefox is designed to spur innovation in the browser community–something many tech enthusiasts have been waiting for since the end of the so-called “browser wars,” when IE conquered its only major competitor, Netscape, to reign supreme as the browser installed on more than 90 percent of PCs worldwide.

In schools and colleges, proponents of the new open-source competitor contend Firefox makes an enticing option.

Though the price tag doesn’t hurt, either–Firefox can be downloaded free of charge from the Mozilla Foundation web site–Tim Wilson, technology integration specialist for the 10,000-student Hopkins School District in suburban Minneapolis, says he’s considering switching to Firefox primarily for its security, among other benefits.

And he’s not alone. Technology trade publication TechWeb News reports that Danish security firm Secunia exposed more than a dozen vulnerabilities in IE during October and November alone. Though several of those holes reportedly were closed with the rollout of SP2, Secunia reported Nov. 15 that at least two of the loopholes remain, even with the latest version of IE 6.0, which has SP2 pre-installed.

Not that Firefox is perfect. Like any technology, Wilson said, bugs will be exposed–eventually. And it is IE’s very ubiquity that makes it such an attractive target for high-tech wrongdoers. As Firefox gains in popularity, it is likely to draw fire from the same miscreants now sniping at IE.

Unlike the Microsoft browser, however, Firefox is not bundled with the applications commonly installed on the PC at the factory–meaning that if the new browser were to be attacked by a hacker, the attack more likely would be localized and less apt to spread throughout the entire system.

Chris Gotstein, technology support specialist for the Fox Point Bayside School District in Milwaukee, also is hoping to bolster security by switching to Firefox. Gotstein said the Firefox browser is equipped with protections that will help do away with spyware, a problem he says is prevalent in Windows-based machines thanks to software called ActiveX, on which much of the IE browser is based.

With IE, Wilson conceded, there are ways to improve security–but many of these procedures involve disabling certain features, ultimately making the browser less user-friendly.

Though security is important, he said, it’s not the only reason he’s considering making the jump to Firefox.

Firefox contains a number of subtle innovations that he said breathe life back into a browser market largely moribund during IE’s reign.

Among the most significant of these is “tabbed” browsing, which allows users to open new pages as tabs in a single window instead of opening multiple windows. According to Wilson, the technology makes for much easier organization and overall browsing of multiple sites.

In keeping with the spirit of open-source design, Firefox also boasts an extension feature that enables programmers to customize different browsers to users’ specific needs and tastes. Though IE provides users with options to tweak their browsers–including font and color options–adjustments for the most part can be made only in accordance with the features that are pre-installed on a specific version. But with Firefox, Wilson said, programmers can cull the internet for everything from automatic weather reports to sports tickers, embedding those features directly into Firefox’s user interface.

Plus, Wilson said, Firefox is platform-neutral. Unlike other web browsers, including IE and Apple’s popular Safari browser, Firefox is configured to run the same on any operating system, including Linux. (Mac OS 9 and earlier versions of Apple’s Macintosh system were not supported by Firefox at press time.)

Working in a district that uses both Macintosh and Windows-based computers, Wilson said, it would be nice to have a single web browser that teachers and students can become familiar with, no matter what type of machine they work on. With Microsoft, a Macintosh user must use a version of IE designed specifically for the Mac.

Even with the new browser’s attractive features, however, Firefox has a long way to go before it could unseat Microsoft’s IE as king of all browsers. Despite complaints that the software giant has been slow to update IE, Microsoft executives say they haven’t given up on the browser and that strides are made daily to improve its quality and efficiency.

Aside from the release of SP2 for Windows XP computers in August, Microsoft says it has labored diligently to provide compatibility with third-party software applications so users can continue to add new features to their browsers.

“Microsoft is committed to continuing innovation on Internet Explorer and to working with developers and partners who build for Internet Explorer,” wrote Anthony Salcito, general manager for Microsoft Education, in an eMail message to eSchool News. “We’ve done a lot of work to ensure that Windows customers have an opportunity to choose from the broadest set of third-party applications in the industry.”

In response to concerns that IE remains vulnerable to attacks, Salcito said, “As long as malicious hackers exist, there is always an opportunity for online threats. Microsoft is committed to improving security for our customers by working on technical innovation, improving updates, and working with law-enforcement agencies worldwide to identify the perpetrators and bring them to justice.”

Though it clearly didn’t fix all of IE’s problems, Salcito said SP2 did what it set out to do: help reduce unwanted content and downloads–including spyware–and stem the influx of nefarious attacks on millions of machines.

Links:

Mozilla Foundation
http://www.mozilla.org

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com