Tech@Work: Surfing Simplified

Switch browsers to help foil hackers.

February 1, 2006

If you’re looking for ways to protect your computer from viruses, many of which depend on Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to create an infection, consider switching to a browser other than IE. As the dominant browser software in the market, Explorer is the easiest target for hackers.

Despite IE’s market dominance, there are alternatives. One option I’ve found effective is Mozilla’s Firefox (www.mozilla.com), version 1.5. Firefox is a free Web browser with features I prefer to those of Explorer.

Another option, Opera, now in version 8.5, offers many of the same features as Firefox, but until last fall it wasn’t free. Now the download is free from www.opera.com, but premium support is still priced at $29 annually. That’s why I opt for Firefox.

Firefox’s main attraction is that its basic program code is open to all developers to view, test, tinker with, and enhance. IE and many other browsers are privately developed and use proprietary code. Among the benefits of open source code: more experts out there in cyberland to quickly find and correct bugs, which creates a more stable and secure program with fewer crashes and less risk of viruses.

Although Firefox functions very similarly to other browsers, there are two key differences. First, the program automatically blocks unrequested and annoying pop-up windows that clutter your screen. The latest version of IE includes this feature, although I haven’t found it to work well.

Second, Firefox lets you open new Web pages in a tabbed interface. Rather than opening multiple copies of the browser itself to display several sites on your monitor at once as is required with IE, you can use tabbed browsing to open several Web pages within a single browser window in Firefox. Plus, you can define a set of tabs as your home page. Then when you click the Home button in the toolbar, all of the tabs you specified will open together. (To appreciate the difference in tabs versus pages, think about how easy it is to open multiple worksheets in Excel using tabs as opposed to multiple pages in Word.) The tabs feature lets you use far less memory and system resources while searching the Web.

One security feature I find particularly effective is a tool that lets you choose which sites you want to remember your data for filling out forms and which you don’t. This way, you can easily autofill forms for noncritical sites, such as newsgroups, but avoid sharing confidential information you might use at a bank site. If you’ve saved form data on first entry at a site, a drop-down menu will appear next time you start a form at that site and let you select which data fields you want to auto-complete in the new form.

Another plus for Firefox is the seemingly endless number of custom add-on utilities, or extensions, that you can download and install for free, all available from https://do-not-add.mozilla.org/extensions. Two of my favorites are

  • Adblock. This must-have tool lets you take back your browser window space from overly abusive advertisements, such as those with bandwidth-hogging Flash or other animation. When you view a page online that has too many graphic ads, you can use Adblock to strip them from the window.
  • IE View. If you encounter a Web page that will display properly only in IE (not uncommon with MLS, banking, and other data-intensive sites), you can manually instruct Firefox to open links to such sites automatically in IE. Then the next time you try to open the page, it will open in IE. It’s a great timesaver when you don’t want to open IE and copy the URL to access the site.

Once you’ve tried Firefox, I think you’ll join its many fans and make the switch. But even if you decide to stick with IE, check out your own site in Firefox and other browsers to ensure that it retains functionality. And ask your developer or host to update or build your site to support all major browsers currently in use. If Firefox users visit your site and can’t view it properly, they’ll move on to a competitor.

In addition to instructing GRI programs, Stephen Canale has spoken at hundreds of seminars in 45 states, covering subjects relating to real estate sales and technology. For more information on his products, newsletter, and seminars, visit www.canale.com.

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