While I'm not one to engage in schadenfreude, the recent announcements from CERT and the United States Department of Homeland Security telling users to avoid the use of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser came as a happy surprise. Not because I take any joy in watching Microsoft suffer, but because CERT and the DHS are coming clean on the dangers a software monoculture can bring.While I don't consider IE the very model of a modern secure browser, I don't think the problems with it start and end with security. The security issues of IE are significant and important, but there are other reasons I use Mozilla, Firefox (the browser, not the Clint Eastwood movie), and other browsers whenever possible.
Why I dislike IE, reason one: Ignoring what the IE monoculture means for security, the assumed ubiquity of IE has convinced businesses that designing sites for IE is all you need to do to present a cohesive user experience to site visitors. People hate doing quality assurance, I guess, and testing against multiple browsers seems verboten to a subset of Web designers.
Banks are the recidivist offenders that seem to be the most egregious members of this class. This laziness results in users of other browsers being unable to do online banking, or, worse yet, experiencing ambiguous results when attempting to do so. "Did that check get sent? Did that transfer happen?"
Why I dislike IE, reason two: Microsoft has done a typically good job of getting people to embed IE into applications. Want to add some kind of browser functionality to your program? Slap in this widget and you're rolling. Don't read this as me saying that every program must write its own browser component, but the use of IE only to do Internet-related connectivity is a real problem.
Quicken under the Windows platform is one such application. Like many users, I maintain an XP box to handle Quicken and games, and I use my bank's online component to keep my Quicken records accurate and up to date. My bank and Quicken basically force me to use IE. Before you say it, I think that GNUCash is a fine program, but I use some features of Quicken that I haven't found an analog in the free software world.
I resent being forced to use a potentially insecure system to access my banking information. It means I must spend that much more time battening down the hatches on the XP machine, something I wouldn't be as worried about if I avoided the use of IE altogether.
Why I dislike IE, reason three: Pop-ups. Come on, how hard is it to recognize that your users want to keep pop-ups down? Mozilla and the rest had this years ago. I understand Microsoft is getting better at this, and none too soon.
Why I dislike IE, reason four: Security. I know I said I'd be ignoring the security issue in this article, and I am; the security I'm talking about is other people's security.
Let me be clearer -- other IE users who use their computers stupidly make the IE security problem 10 times worse. I can keep up with security patches, run a solid firewall, and make sure my machine isn't filled with spyware/malware. If I have to dip my toe into the malware horror show that is IE once in a while, I am confident that I am not spreading around spam and malware through my actions.
While I wouldn't say a majority of the computer-using public doesn't know how to maintain a machine, I think it is clear that many people do not. Zombified Windows machines sitting on cable modems are the enemy to a healthy network, and we all pay for it. You don't think all that bandwidth used for spam and viruses and the personnel costs of dealing with it at your work or ISP comes easy, do you?
The point is, I know when my computer is up to no good and I can deal with it, but many do not, and because of that, I don't like IE's approach to security and maintenance. Since users of every skill level run IE, IE is one of the great conduits for spam, malware, viruses, and spyware. And since IE isn't designed with those users in mind, this problem will continue to worsen until Microsoft changes they way it approaches these security problems. Until it does, check out Firefox; it's pretty terrific. And make your friends and family check out Firefox too, before they become part of the problem.
Chris DiBona is best known for having been an editor/author
for Slashdot. He is an internationally
known advocate of open source software and related methodologies, writes for a
great number of publications, and speaks internationally on software
development and digital rights issues.