Browser Bonanza: IE8, Firefox 3, Safari 3.1, Lynx

The end of 2006 was a great step forward for tabbed browsing. If you do legal research, you may be used to having multiple documents open at the same time. You’ve always been able to do this with browsers, but the multiplying buttons on your Windows task bar were irritating. IE7 finally caught up to Firefox by adding tabs and so now you can toggle between your secondary sources in one tab and the case or statute in another. I’ve used IE7 and Firefox 2 interchangeably, with a preference for the latter for its speed and the most significant difference between the two: the ability to extend it with a huge library of add-ons. Now Windows users can anticipate the imminent update to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 and Mozilla’s Firefox 3 (both in beta), and the recently updated Apple Safari 3.1.

The biggest advances in IE7 from my perspective were the tabbed windows and the integrated (and customizable search). Firefox 2 had already accomplished both of those functions, although Microsoft did a better job of making the custom search part of the browser. Firefox requires the OpenSearch plug-in for it to have the same flexibility.

I had used Safari on Macs but was not impressed. I’ve never liked the way Apple OS machines open up more and more windows. It’s amazing how irritating it is once you’re accustomed to tabbed research. But when I was looking around at other browsers, I found out Safari had been ported to Windows. It’s not recent – it appears to have come out last year – but Apple released 3.1 last week (more at Gizmodo).

Microsoft announced it’s IE8 beta about two weeks ago.  It sounds like there’s not a lot new to make Firefox users reconsider their choice (ComputerWorld) but the new Web Slices and Activities features sound promising.  However, from a legal research standpoint, I don’t see either one being terribly helpful.  I normally don’t mess too much with betas, but IE8 beta has a nice toggle to enable you to see the Web as you would in IE7, so it’s pretty painless to take a look at the developing application.

Firefox 3 is also in beta (Beta 5 releases on Tuesday), although unlike Microsoft’s developer beta, it’s further along towards release.  You can grab the beta and keep it separate from your Firefox 2 as you take a look.  There are a number of enhancements but the most obvious difference is a reworking of the ages-old navigational menu.  Ever since Mosaic, browsers have had back, forward, refresh, stop and home buttons all in row.  IE7 tossed that concept out the window, and now Firefox is tweaking it as well.  Home is bumped down to a second navigation menu, and the other buttons are reworked to reduce space (although I like how the Back button is even bigger, since that’s the button I most often click).  The more powerful Location bar (with it’s “learned” URLS and additional information – URLS supplemented by page titles) is going to be a great addition to the search bar that suggests keywords for your searches.

The fact is, after looking at IE8’s beta, Firefox 3’s beta, and Safari, I can’t see a lot of reason for using anything other than Firefox.  If your company requires you to use the Microsoft Browser, IE7 and IE8 are completely adequate and are, in any event, huge improvements over IE6 for research.  But given a choice, Firefox remains the browser of choice, not because it has inherently better features, but because the huge library of add-ons available means that you can get more out of your browser.

As IE and Firefox close the gap in their features, the benefit of the Firefox add-ons will only grow.  A year after IE7 came out and there is still few ways, and even fewer free ways, to pimp your browser to make it more efficient.  [Safari offers only 6 enhancements, all things that a Windows browser user would have assumed were installed anyway (PDF reader and media players).]

Because of some other work I’m doing, I supplemented by browser research by finding a port for Lynx for Windows.  It was funny to return to the formerly-Unix-based, text-only browser that I originally used back in law school in the early ’90s.  It’s obviously improved a lot and it was interesting to see how pages rendered.