A Weblog monitoring coverage of environmental issues and science in the UK media. By Professor Emeritus Philip Stott. The aim is to assess whether a subject is being fairly covered by press, radio, and television. Above all, the Weblog will focus on science, but not just on poor science. It will also bring to public notice good science that is being ignored because it may be politically inconvenient.

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Time to get foxy over your web browser.....

The latest security breach affecting Microsoft Internet Explorer (MSIE) has proved the final keystroke for me : 'Web browser flaw prompts warning' (BBC Online Technology News, June 26): "Users are being told to avoid using Internet Explorer (IE) until Microsoft patches a serious security hole in it. The loophole is being exploited to open a backdoor on a PC that could let criminals take control of a machine. The threat of infection is so high because the code created to exploit the loophole has somehow been placed on many popular websites. Experts say the list of compromised sites involves banks, auction and price comparison firms and is growing fast." As Basil Brush would say: "Boom! Boom!"

I therefore do not apologise today for blogging on something other than the environment. This is vital for us all. Having patched and patched, there comes a limit to one's patience with a system that appears to be so full of security holes that your 'mouse' will never be short of a home. It is, of course, good to learn that the Russian web server at the centre of this dangerous net security problem has now been closed down (although nobody knows how many machines might have been compromised) (see: 'Internet browser breach defused' BBC Online Technology News, June 28), but I've had enough. Why on this virtual earth should users be blamed for not updating enough? I've always religiously updated, but, in this particular instance, there still isn't a patch available for home users.

Thus, following expert advice, including that of my highly computer-literate (university-trained) son-in-law, I have abandoned MSIE and 'Outlook Express' and I have transferred to the quite splendid 'Firefox' browser and 'Thunderbird' e-mail client. Both are excellent, crammed full of features, and both seem to work seamlessly on my machine. Moreover, as they are open-source software under constant and imaginative development, they are free and highly customisable. I also like the idea of using open-source software that has no commercial ties. It feels good.

The 'Firefox' browser (Basil Brush, the famous television fox, would surely bark merrily at the name) can be downloaded free from here: 'Firefox Download'. 'Firefox' runs on Windows (98 to XP, but it is especially suitable for XP), Linux, and Mac (full system requirements are provided - I believe it also supports Solaris and OS/2). The Windows download is a mere 4.78MB, which takes seconds on a fast broadband connection. The tremendous feature range includes built-in Pop-up Blocking, highly-flexible Tabbed Browsing, Smarter Search (with Google in the tool bar), File Download direct to your Desktop, Keystroke Text Zooming, and so much more. Above all, however, 'Firefox' is built with security in mind. It thus does not load harmful ActiveX controls and a comprehensive set of privacy tools keeps online activity one's own business. What is also excellent is the fact that the newest version possesses an Easy Transition System that imports all of your personal settings - Favourites, Passwords, and other data - from your previous browser. Here is a recent review of 'Firebird' (an earlier version) from Forbes (February 4): 'Building a better browser': "Within minutes, it becomes clear that Firebird is a breath of fresh air compared to Explorer."

The associated e-mail client, 'Thunderbird', can be downloaded free from here: 'Thunderbird Download'. Again, 'Thunderbird' runs on Windows (XP best), Linux, and Mac, and the Windows download is again small at 5.9MB. It supports IMAP/POP, HTML mail, labels, quick search, smart address book, spell-checking, return receipts, advanced message filtering, LDAP address completion, import tools, powerful search, and the ability to manage multiple e-mail and newsgroup accounts. Above all, however, 'Thunderbird', like 'Firefox', has a range of built-in security features, providing an effective tool for detecting junk mail, as well as enterprise and government-grade security features, such as S/MIME, digital signing, message encryption, and support for certificates and security devices. And, even more importantly for safety, no script is allowed to run by default.

'Firefox' and 'Thunderbird' are from The Mozilla Foundation, which makes free, or open-source, software. This means that you can use them without restriction, including for corporate use. Even the source code is available for you to study.

This is surely the way forward in a responsible and open web community. I'm personally delighted with both 'Firefox' and 'Thunderbird', but especially with the former.

I would add, for fairness and completeness, that there is also another excellent browser you might like to consider as an alternative, namely 'Opera', although this is not free (USD39). PC World, US, nevertheless, voted it the 'Best Browser of 2004'.

What is clear, however, is that there is at last an excellent range of alternative browsers from which to choose, and one can, therefore, perhaps for the first time since the old 'Netscape' wars, exercise genuine consumer power.

I would thus recommend hunting with the 'Firefox' and the 'Thunderbird', or having a night at the 'Opera'. Full Marx (sic joke!) all round. I would finally add that 'Netscape 7.1' also remains freely downloadable (here).

Philip, glad his daughter married a computer buff. Jolly useful. Lunch Thunderbird?

[New counter, June 19, 2006, with loss of some data]

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