Browser wars redux: Happy days are here again

I'm partying like it's 1997. I haven't seen this much action on the browser front since the Microsoft-Netscape death match at the height of the dot com boom.

Last week Mozilla released its third beta of Firefox 3.1, and hinted a fourth one - to be called Firefox 3.5 - was on its way.

Yesterday Chrome quietly slipped back into beta (to my mind, the only thing about Chrome that ever stopped being beta was its name). Version 2.x introduces a passel of new features and, allegedly, a speed boost of 35 percent.

Today Microsoft officially re-entered the browser fray, releasing the "final" version of Internet Explorer 8. (At least, until the next major update.) I'm not sure I can be bothered to give it a whirl. I only use Internet Explorer when a Web site insists on it, and that's getting more and more rare these days. (I've pretty much got it down to Windows Update, Quickbooks online, and Netflix Watch Instantly, when I'm doing it on a laptop and not my Roku box.)

Microsoft claims IE8 is now faster than Chrome 1.0. [Insert sarcastic comment here.] I just don't think it's in Microsoft's DNA to write smart, efficient code; I would be shocked if I could run half as many browser windows in any version of IE as I can in the Mozilla-based browsers. But I'm willing to be pleasantly surprised. (Fellow CW blogger Steven J. Vaughn-Nichols - no Microsoft fanboy -- says IE8 is better than Firefox. So maybe there is a tooth fairy after all.)

Also -- stop me if you've heard this one -- IE8 is "hands down the most secure browser on the market," senior director of product management Amy Barzdukas told the BBC last January. That didn't stop 25-year-old German hacker named Nils from having his way with it at CanSecWest's Pwn2Own security contest yesterday. (To be fair, Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox also cracked easier than an egg rolling off a table.)

As I write this post, Chrome has not been cracked - but it's still only the middle of day two of the contest. I suspect that the term "secure Web browser" may soon join the expanding list of oxymorons, alongside "Microsoft innovation" and "business ethics." We'll just have to learn to live with partially secure browsers.

Meanwhile, Google is touting the uber-grooviness of its technology by urging Javascript mavens to mash it up, and is showing off the results on its Chrome Experiments page. Some of them are pretty impressive.

A nifty app called Google Gravity takes the Google home page and causes the search window and all other page elements to cascade to the bottom of the screen like ice sheets tumbling off a glacier. Here's a good April Fool's Day trick to play on someone: Change their home page to the Google Gravity app without telling them, then watch what happens when they load their browser. Tell them their computer has caught the Yadslooflirpa.32 virus, and offer to fix it for $50.

There's Ball Pool: Open the browser window, hold down your mouse button, and dozens of psychadelic multicolored balls come tumbling out of your cursor to fill the browser window. And.... that's about it. (Consumption of brain altering chemicals may be advised.) And then Browser Ball, in which a red and white beach ball can be made to bounce between overlapping browser windows.

Interestingly, Gravity, Pool, and Browser Ball all work just fine in Firefox 3.07. So much for showing off the innate grooviness of Chrome.

Silly stuff? You bet. But it shows just how hard these companies are working to best each other - a kind of competition can only be good for users in the long run.

Dan Tynan blogs about technology here at Culture Crash, and over there at Tynan on Tech. 

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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