Now that smart devices, including smart phones and tablets, have arguably become the most widely used devices now in use to surf the web, it may be time for those users to consider an alternative browser, rather than the one that came factory installed on their devices. As has typically happened on desktops and laptops regardless of the operating system, the default internet browser is the one that tends to be most widely used, as many users are either unaware or reluctant to try another browser. On my former long running radio show, I was frequently asked about browsers other than those installed by the manufacturer, and my answers were always the same: Yes, you can have more than one browser installed; Yes, you can use more than one browser; No, they will not interfere with each other; and Yes, most browsers will import the bookmarks (favorites), cookies, passwords, and other pertinent information from the original browser.
Not surprisingly, the Microsoft Internet Explorer became the world’s most widely used browser not because it was the best, but simply because it was installed as an integral part of Windows on virtually all Windows computers (now replaced by “Edge” on Windows 10 machines). Likewise, Safari became the most widely used browser on Apple computers much for the same reason, that it was included with the operating system. As more computer users became aware that there were potentially better browsers available, almost always free, people began downloading and installing them. As new “alternative” browsers started to become more popular, pundits started widely publishing reviews of them, computer clubs started demonstrating the non-OEM browsers, and millions of users had a form of epiphany regarding browsers. Many of these “third party” internet browsers had distinct advantages over those that were factory installed, mostly in the terms of speed, security, and features lacking in the “OEM” browsers.
There were only a very few early graphical browsers that worked decently on the newly organized “World Wide Web” in the early 1990’s, the most successful of which was Mosaic, a browser which I faithfully used until it was no longer supported or updated. In 1995, a full 20 years ago, Microsoft licensed the code of Mosaic, and produced its own ubiquitous browser, originally named “Microsoft Internet Explorer”, and later renamed just “Internet Explorer”; it was first included with the “Plus” add-on package for Windows 95. From 1995 until this year (2015), Internet Explorer was included as the default browser on almost all builds and flavors of Windows up to and including Windows 8.1; until recently, the copyright and credits statement on Internet Explorer still recognized its roots as being from Mosaic. Because of the enormous numbers of the Windows operating systems that were sold, Internet Explorer became the most widely used browser, hitting a peak of 95% in 2002 and 2003, and then having a steep decline in market share as often superior browsers attracted more users. Now, Windows 10 includes an integral and totally new browser “Edge” as its default browser, but almost all of the major competitors to “Edge” are transitioning to bring their competitive advantages to Windows 10.
Now that many of us are using phones and tablets running Android or iOS as our primary web connection, with only a relatively small portion of smart devices running Windows, Blackberry, Symbian, Firefox OS, and other operating systems, the battle for browser market share has substantially heated up. Android, which still has the lion’s share of the smart device market, is a product of Google, which more than coincidentally publishes the Chrome web browser, the factory default on many of the Android devices. To a lesser extent, some purveyors of Android products have chosen to use an alternative, somewhat proprietary, and almost generic browser as the web access default for purely commercial reasons, rather than Chrome, which is also generally available for free. Owners of Apple iOS devices have mostly been satisfied with Apple’s integral Safari browser, which is obviously Apple’s entry in this crowded marketplace.
Many may wonder why so many different software publishers are investing so much time and money creating and upgrading so many different browsers; the answer is simple, in that browsers can be a “cash cow” generating massive amounts of revenue to the publisher, even though almost all browsers today are given away for free. What may not be so obvious to users when they browse the web is that each advertisement displayed generates revenue, some of which is paid to that particular website developer, along with a small share (fee, or commission) paid to the browser publisher. Another major generator of revenue to the browser publishers are known in the industry as “Search Royalties”, generated whenever someone uses a search engine most notably Google, but also Yahoo!, Bing (Microsoft), Ask, and other search engines. If users will pay careful attention, they may notice that on most browsers, the initial default search engine on those browsers is Google, who has been known to “give incentives” (pay handsomely) to the browser publishers in order to be the top or default search engine. When a search is done on the Google search engine, revenues are generated for Google, and Google pays a “Search Royalty” to the browser publisher, except for its own Chrome browser, where Google pockets the search revenue generated without sharing any with another browser publisher. As an example, Mozilla, the publishers of the very popular Firefox browser, have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in “Search Royalties” as payment from Google whenever a Firefox user does a search on Google. Of course, Google generates tremendous revenues from its search engine from advertising, paid rankings and listings, and other fees collected. The other search engines such as Yahoo! and Bing earn revenues and pay royalties in much the same way; if someone used Internet Explorer to do a Yahoo! search, Yahoo! would pay a royalty to Microsoft. The number of browser to search engine combinations is enormous, but each combination generates huge revenues for both parties.
With the absolute explosion of smart devices, and the commercial desire to make a profit (or just cover costs, as Mozilla is technically a “non-profit”), the browser wars have intensified in the phone and tablet battlefield. My personal favorite browser is Firefox, which I have running as my primary browser on my Android phone and tablet, as well as all of my desktop and notebook (laptop) computers running Windows. While fans can argue over browsers just as they do over sports teams or pickup trucks, I happen to like Firefox. On each of my devices, regardless of operating system, Firefox is frequently updated to include security and performance enhancements, as well as to add new features. Firefox can be easily configured to “synch” between devices, such that a webpage opened on one device can be opened or continued on another device, and bookmarks (favorites) and passwords can be seamlessly shared on all of my devices. In terms of compatibility, Firefox has versions that can run well on most operating systems, but has never publically released a fully functional version that will run on iOS, making Firefox non-competitive in the iPhone and iPad market.
There are several other excellent browsers that will run well on both iOS and Android devices, often performing better and more securely than the native application installed by the device or operating system maker. With some dispute and controversy from Apple fans, many of the comparative reviews of Apple’s popular Safari browser running on most iOS powered iPhones and iPads often falls short of many of its competitors when run on the same devices. Since many people have multiple smart devices running different operating systems, it may also be a convenience to run the same browser on these different, but otherwise incompatible devices, which would allow the user to transparently share bookmarks and other content.
One alternative browser that I have installed on several devices is the Dolphin browser (dolphin.com), aptly named because it is both intelligent and sleek, and has builds that run very well on both Android and iOS devices. Among browser users, Dolphin may have some of the most ardent and loyal supporters who have been known to hype and brag about their favorite browser. While many of the features among the competing browsers are somewhat in common, the Dolphin browser allows the use of gestures on the screen as a way to execute commands. One quick example is drawing the letter “N” with a finger or stylus on the Dolphin screen to open a “New” tab. Many preset gestures are included in Dolphin, and custom gestures can be easily programmed. A simple tap on a webpage can indicate that that page or news item is to be shared on social media, such as posting a news story on the user’s Facebook account with just a tap of a finger.
As it is apparently capitalizing on its immense name recognition in order to maximize its revenues, Google, the parent of the Android operating system, also produces a very capable browser for Apple products. While incorporated into almost all Android products by design, Chrome is also becoming popular among iOS users and is available from iTunes at itunes.apple.com/us/app/puffin-browser-free-fast-flash/id472937654. Considered as one of the fastest browsers, Chrome is also one of the most powerful and intuitive smart device browsers, functioning almost identically to its desktop cousins. One advantage of Chrome when used on multiple platforms is the simple and concurrent availability of bookmarks, history and other content if the user has a registered Google account, which will automatically synchronize the content across all of the user’s devices.
A very popular European browser rapidly gaining market share in the U.S., which runs on multiple platforms including Android and iOS phones and tablets, is Opera Mini. Comparatively compact in size compared to many of its competitors, Opera Mini offers a feature on the opening display it calls “Speed Dial” which displays thumbnail images of the bookmarks or websites most frequently visited, which can be rapidly opened. Likewise, multiple open tabs can be displayed simultaneously providing for instant switching between those tabs. Opera Mini also offers another feature which potentially saves many users money on data costs, as it can compress downloaded data and content by as much as 90%. For those who often download large amounts of music, videos, or other content, Opera Mini offers a helpful feature which displays the volume of saved data, as well as the space available for additional downloaded material. While extremely feature rich and compact, in my own anecdotal experience with Opera Mini on my devices is that it appears to load websites slightly slower than some of its competitors, but its strong advantages typically offset this minor speed issue. Opera Mini is available for iOS devices from iTunes, while the Android version is available on the Google Play Store. The larger version of Opera (not “Mini”) is available for Android only.
There are several other browsers that work just fine on both Android and iOS devices, each offering its own competitive advantages and disadvantages. One way that some of the lesser known browsers compete with the “big boys” is by offering additional features, most notably enhanced security or parental controls. The Puffin browser screens search results from the major search engines and filters the content for safety, security, and privacy issues; Puffin is also unusual in that it displays bookmarks, news, and other selected content in squares or tiles, much like the desktop on Windows 8 and Windows 10. Another browser emphasizing security and privacy is from a publisher better known for providing plug-ins, rather than complete browsers, and is the Ghostery browser. The Ghostery browser, available for both iOS and Android, can automatically delete cookies and other internet tracks, making it one of the most privacy oriented browsers available. Ghostery prevents third parties from “mining” your personal information and internet history, as well as restricts websites from tracking your online activities. While not as polished and refined as its older and more widely used competitors, Ghostery is worthy of consideration for those especially concerned about online privacy.
With an assortment of alternative browsers available for both iOS and Android phones and tablets, there may be no need to use the sometimes inferior web browsers that typically come factory installed on our devices. All of these browsers listed may be worthy of consideration.