With over 170 million downloads, Mozilla's Internet browser Firefox is the second-most popular browser in the world - and growing."Firefox is definitely gaining momentum," said Mike Dickson, CPA, CITP, CISA and president of Business Technology Group LLC, in Columbus, Ohio. "It's the first time since Netscape that there's a real alternative to Internet Explorer."

Dickson downloaded Firefox for his own personal use in order to "see what it was all about and see how good it is." What Dickson found is what many are experiencing: While certain sites were faster than others, some Web sites didn't download at all.

Microsoft's Windows-embedded Internet Explorer browser currently boasts the highest frequency of Internet browsing, but the company has incorporated some of the favorite aspects of Mozilla's Firefox into IE's latest version, 7.0. Mozilla has countered by extending their features with the 2.0 release, which is due out late in the second quarter or early third quarter of 2006, and has already added new features like an Internet Explorer tab.

While search engine Google is trying to convert IE users into Firefox loyalists, CPAs and tech advisors like Dickson and David Cieslak, CPA, CITP and principal of the Encino, Calif.-based Information Technology Group, don't see a majority of Internet users or online accounting software providers switching over to Firefox any time soon.

"There are a bunch of different browsers out there, but at the end of the day, if someone is looking to deploy an application online, Internet Explorer is still the best bet from a straight compatibility perspective," said Cieslak. "That's what we are telling our clients and that's what we're recommending."

In Explorer's Version 7.0, which was still in beta testing at press time, a new tabbed browsing interface allows multiple panes of information to be contained within one single master window, as opposed to past IE versions, where a whole new window had to be opened. Being able to choose to search within Google, MSN or eBay is also a favorite feature within Firefox, along with Real Simple Syndication feeds from a selected site fed directly to a user's "Favorites Center" that are now available with IE 7.0.

"If you are a CPA firm, your employees shouldn't be in questionable sites," said Leo Laporte, a reporter and host of online technology shows This Week in Tech and Security Now. "And if they are going to surf the Web, they should do it with Firefox, which is much safer."

Having been picked as the least-secure of the two browsers repeatedly over the last two years, Microsoft has heightened the security features with Version 7.0. Some added security upgrades include alerts such as when a user enters known malicious Web sites or phishing sites - fake Web sites, disguised as legitimate businesses like eBay and PayPal, that steal a user's financial or personal information.

"With the new security features being introduced in Internet Explorer 7, we're confident that Internet Explorer will be a much improved browsing option for customers," said a Microsoft spokesperson. "Security improvements include Internet Explorer ActiveX Opt-In to reduce the attack surface and give users more control over the security of their PC."

ActiveX controls - controls over the protocol commonly used by Web designers to embed multimedia files (i.e. Flash, video or music files) in Web pages - give users more control over the security of their PC by disabling all non-core ActiveX controls.

A false sense of security?

"A lot of people claim Firefox is safer, but it's primarily because Firefox is not the target Microsoft is," said Dickson. "I don't think it's really safer. I get the same announced vulnerabilities with Firefox that I do with Apple browsers and with Internet Explorer. Are more users impacted with IE? Of course they are. But people have been targeting Microsoft a long time; [hackers] are just starting to target Firefox."

The simple fact is that many programs and Web sites do not work with Mozilla's Firefox, said Dickson. The reason usually lies in the ActiveX protocol, which Firefox does not support. Another reason is that software providers are not seeing the demand to test and make their products compatible with Firefox or any other Web browser.

QuickBooks' Online Edition, the Microsoft Dynamics product lines (AX, SL, NAV, GP and CRM), and their add-on products, as well as ActiveX control-based sites, cannot run on Firefox.

However, said Randy Johnston, executive vice president at the Hammond, La.-based business and technology consulting firm K2 Enterprises, there is now a feature allowing Firefox users to view those pages.

The IE Tab is a tab within Firefox that runs the same scripts that an IE browser would to allow users to view IE-based Web sites without actually running Explorer. The tab, built by developers in Taiwan, is based on the old IE View available in previous Firefox versions that opened a new window for IE-based sites.

Johnston, who has downloaded and tried out both Firefox 1.5 and IE 7.0, said that most of the sites that Firefox can't access, including Intuit sites, are accessible through the IE tab. And Johnston claims that the speed at which Firefox operates is a lot faster and requires less storage space than IE, making Firefox, while not a total substitute for IE, the choice of technology geeks who are "heavily speed conscious," said Johnston.

Google campaign

Meanwhile anti-Explorer activists have started a campaign where search engine Google pays $1 per user referred over to Firefox. The campaign, titled Explorer Destroyer, allows Web site managers to download scripts onto their Web site so a client or someone looking at the Web site can't view the Web page unless they download Firefox. Google representatives have confirmed that the campaign is supported by Google and that payments are being made to those participating.

A Web site manager creates an account in Google AdSense, an advertising program run by Google that Web site owners enroll in to enable advertising text and images on their sites. Then the manager or Webmaster downloads the scripts and picks a level of suggestion: Gentle Encouragement, Semi-Serious and Dead Serious. The higher the setting, the less people can view without downloading Firefox.

"I appreciate that they [Mozilla] are getting Microsoft off their butts and pushing some real added value and functionality sooner rather than later," said ITG's Cieslak. "But at the end of the day, there are developers that said, 'Our application is going to run on Internet Explorer,' and because of that, we're really faced with having to continue using IE, not regrettably, but we don't have much of a choice."

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