The Basics, Part 1: What’s a web browser?

Though the web browser is probably the single most frequently used software application on any individual’s computer, few people know how to describe it. This article will explain what a web browser is, what it does, and how to choose the best one to fit your needs.

Introduction

A friend of mine summed up the average user’s definition of the term web browser when I asked her to open one a few days ago: “is that the little ‘E’ on my desktop?” She wasn’t exactly wrong in her definition, but some clarification is certainly in order. It’s not just the little ‘E’ on your desktop.

The little ‘E’ my friend mentioned happens to be the desktop icon for Internet Explorer, Microsoft‘s web browser and, not entirely by coincidence, the most popular web browser in use today. But while Internet Explorer is indeed a web browser, it is not the only web browser you have to choose from. This is an important distinction because not all browsers are created equal, and choosing the right one will enable you to make the most out of your computer and Internet connection investments. Before I start talking about the variety of web browsers available, let’s define what a web browser actually is.

Web Browsers: What Are They And What Do They Do?

You’ve probably heard the term World Wide Web, or simply the web for short, and you may already have a good idea of what it means. World Wide Web is the term used to describe the system of interconnected documents, called web pages, which are accessed through the Internet. We as users see these documents as Google, eBay, or Amazon.com. Documents on the web are connected by hyperlinks: a clickable word, phrase, or image that points to another document on the web. We call this system the web because documents connect to one another via hyperlinks and create a structure that is easy to visualize as shaped like a spider web.

Documents on the web are like any other computerized file, such as an image or a spreadsheet, in that you need the correct software to view them. A web browser is simply a program used to view web page files. Web browsers understand the standardized formats in which these documents are written and translate them into a human-readable form. At bare minimum a web browsers needs only two features: a mechanism that allows the user to enter a web page address (called a URL) and a place in which the web page will be displayed. The user does the rest of the work by navigating through the documents via hyperlinks. In the early days of the web this is literally all a browser had to do, but today we expect a higher level of sophistication out of our software.

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What Else Can My Web Browser Do?

As a result of the Browser Wars of the late-nineties, web browsers today do a lot more than display web pages. I won’t discuss this issue in detail because it’s certain to bore anyone outside of the IT industry, but suffice it to say that competition between Microsoft and Netscape forced innovation in the browser market resulting in many unique features, some good and some very, very bad. Today’s browsers have evolved beyond the simplistic “page viewer” of the nineties and provide many of the features which users like us have come to desire. I’ll discuss just a few of them below.

Bookmarks

Bookmarking, also called Favorites, is a feature that allows users to save and quickly revisit web pages by creating a shortcuts inside their web browser. Any browser created after 1993 allows a user to create bookmarks, but some implement this feature better than others. Most browsers offer three ways to create a bookmark: a right-click menu option (usually called “Bookmark Page” or “Add to Favorites”), a button on the web browser’s toolbar, or a menu option called Bookmarks or Favorites. Favorites are usually viewed through a pull-down menu at the top of the browser or through a separate panel inside the browser called a side-bar. Organizing and making the most of one’s bookmarks can be interesting chore. Perhaps I’ll cover that in another article.

Browsing History

Eventually we all run into a situation in which we want to return to a web page we visited previously and forgot to bookmark. All current browsers, through a feature called browser history, allow us to go back in time and revisit sites we’ve viewed in the past. Your browser can be told through the Options or Preferences menu how long to store your browsing history, or you can disable it altogether. For reasons of privacy, a serious concern in today’s connected world, many users don’t want their browsing history saved at all.

Stored Passwords

Some web sites, such as forums, web banking, and online retailers will ask you to register for membership and later log into the site using a username and password. Today many of us have dozens of passwords to remember and so browser manufacturers have tried to ease our frustration by allowing their browsers to save and automatically enter our passwords when we visit sites which require them. This is a bad idea for a whole host of reasons, the most notable of which is security. I may talk about this in depth some day, but for now simply click no if your browser asks you if you want it to remember or save a password.

Browser Extensions and Plug-ins

In the early days of the web the only information which could be viewed in a web browser were text-only, hyperlinked documents. This limitation was soon overcome when browser manufacturers added the ability to display other content embedded within in a web page such as images, sounds, and even other programs.

In order to display content embedded in a page your browser may need to install an additional piece of software called a browser plug-in. A plug-in provides the browser with the ability to read and display files which it cannot understand on its own. Some plug-ins are safe while others are potentially dangerous, and others are downright malicious. Regardless of which browser you choose to use, install the most updated version and always read the warnings presented before clicking Open, Yes, or Install when prompted to install a new plug-in. Only install plug-ins from websites that you know you can trust, and if you’re just not sure submit the address of the site to StopBadWare.org to check it for dangerous content.

Similar to plug-ins, browser extensions are programs which run within your web browser and provide features that are not available by default in the web browser. Browser extensions can do almost anything including add a search bar to your browser, display your local weather, or block pop-ups. Today most useful features that were previously only available as extensions including search bars or pop-up blocking, are built into the most recent versions of the most popular browsers. You should always be weary of extensions and question whether they actually do something useful before installing them.

Web Browser Variety

Most users will consider Internet Explorer synonymous with the term web browser for the simple reason that, assuming their computer runs a Microsoft Windows operating system, it arrived with Internet Explorer installed. Other browsers exist and you should spend a couple of days using each one before you decide which browser is right for you. I’ll stop short of making a professional recommendation as to which browser you should use because my needs may be different than your own.

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer is Microsoft’s contribution to the web browser market and is automatically available on any modern Windows-based computer. It offers the same set of features as other browsers in addition to the convenience of being completely integrated into your operating system. For example, your bookmarks are automatically available on your Windows Start menu, and adding a web page shortcut to your desktop is as simple as right-clicking the page. Though the latest release of Internet Explorer has make significant improvements, the browser is still renowned for its poor security and most conscientious users will simply use a different browser rather than leave the health of their PC at risk. If you do choose to use Internet Explorer, make sure you download the latest version and turn automatic updates on. (Download Internet Explorer 7)

Firefox

If you want the long version of the Firefox story, you can read it on Wikipedia; but in the interest of brevity, Firefox began as branch of the Netscape Corporation’s web browser called Navigator (code-named Mozilla). A small group of software developers at Netscape believed that Navigator suffered from what programmers call software bloat, in which a program uses more system resources than it deserves, often because it simply tries to do too much. Firefox began as a minimalist approach to web browsing and offloaded non-essential features to a rich set of plug-ins. Today Firefox offers the features which users demand, but still uses fewer system resources than Internet Explorer. Firefox is my choice for everyday web browser tasks. (Download Firefox)

Opera

Opera is a Norwegian web browser that, while probably the fastest, smallest, safest, and most feature-rich browser on the market, has had little success catching on in the United States. However Opera’s lack of popularity is result of poor marketing, not poor software, and I would recommend giving Opera a trial run before writing it off entirely. Opera does not support browser extensions, which as an everyday user is actually a good thing. It’s simply one less angle of attack that malicious websites can use against you. (Download Opera)

Safari

Finally we come to Safari, Apple‘s web browser which was just recently ported to Windows. Apple claims that Safari is faster than other web browsers on the Windows platform, but as of writing this article no third-party benchmarks are available to prove it. Apple also claims that Safari has an “elegant user interface,” yet it’s the ugliest interface Apple has ever designed. All other features that Apple touts about their browser are already available in the three other programs mentioned above, and all are just a little bit sleeker than Apple’s version. I offer a link to Safari only for the sake of variety. (Download Safari)

Conclusion

A web browser is simply a program used to view files on the web. Today the types of files you can view with a web browser have become more various and sophisticated, but competition has driven innovation in the browser market and the leading vendors, Microsoft, Mozilla, Opera, and Apple, have risen to the occasion and in most cases met or exceeded our demand for features. With the addition of some features security risks have been created, and ultimately the responsibly for keeping one’s computer safe from malicious plug-ins and extensions falls on the user.

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