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The past, give or take, 4 years in browser history were about as exciting as the courtship display of an endive, dictated by the hegemony of Microsoft Internet Explorer. See my article Don’t Mention the Browser War for a more detailed history overview. But that’s all in the past now and these days are roaring times when it comes to the browser market:

  • Netscape rose up from the dead with the launch of version 8. See also my (N)e(t)scape from Alcatraz web log
  • Firefox gets a major update to 1.5 which will be launched Q4 this year.
  • Opera celebrated their 10 anniversary too and handed out free registrations for that occasion
  • MIE blew 10 candles out and launched a rather unexpected new version of their standalone browser

And another strange phenomenon occurred. Whereas earlier this year it was predicted that Firefox would break the absolute power of MIE, the share of Firefox has stagnated and even decreased a little bit. Yet more people have fallen back on MIE again, but with the difference that they now use wrappers in order to alleviate the pain. This web log will give a short overview of the 2 most popular ones and one plugin. Sure there are plenty of others, but it seems that some initiatives like Neoplanet haven’t evolved much lately.

 

Maxthon

Maxthon, formerly known as MyIE2, is probably the best known wrapper. Craig has it in his Fun Friday, What’s in your bag? . It uses Trident, which is the layout engine introduced with MIE4.

These are the most important features:

  • Tabbed browsing. No further explanation is needed on that, except to say that the default settings may seem a bit odd at first. I was clicking on hyperlink all the time and kept wondering why they didn’t show up. I didn’t notice that they opened in a separate tab instead of a window.
  • Programmable mouse gesture. Not directly one of my favourites. It allows you to navigate with the mouse instead of the navigation buttons. To give you an example: right mouse button click and moving left with the mouse results in a history back.
  • The ability to open new links by dragging and dropping the link on the page. They call it the revolutionary Super Drag&Drop. The Mac people would disagree on that.
  • Groups is a kind of bulk opener of sites. You can categorize favourites in them and if you click on such a group, all sites will be opened together.
  • With Aliases, you can create shortcuts to websites without going to your favourites. Typing SDN in the address bar would lead you directly to http://sdn.sap.com
  • AD Hunter – an ad-blocking utility, a Google bar type like feature, but with lots more configurable settings which make this thing far more “intelligent”. There are of course tons of other plugins that’ll do the same (or better).
  • Privacy protection, which cleans all your whereabouts. A kind of WebWasher like tool.
  • The external utility bar allows you to define shortcuts on your browser if you don’t want to use the Windows Start button or the Windows Taskbar.
  • Supports both Maxthon Plugins and Internet Explorer plugins. Now the latter needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Google doesn’t officially support Maxthon anymore and I know from experience that many software packages don’t recognize Maxthon at all and install themselves only in MIE and are not visible in Maxthon. SnagIt and Copernic are examples of this.
  • Programmable search functions, with the most popular as standard. It’s easier than Moz type browsers to add additional search engines by hand, but I would have preferred that this feature would also use the Mycroft standard.
  • Over 300 skins if you don’t like the current layout.
  • The RSS reader is rather basic. There are plenty of other and better readers available and if you are determined not to leave your web browser, online web readers are also available.
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  • I’ve read somewhere that it should also have partial Gecko engine support, but I haven’t discovered it yet. I wonder if one refers to the Mozilla ActiveX project or not.
  • An automatic updating service, called MaxUpdate.

 

Netcaptor

Netcaptor is probably the oldest of the bunch of wrappers still in existence. In fact it debuted in 1997 and claims to be one of the first to introduce tab browsing. Despite it saying that it tries not to copy features from other browsers it certainly took over the licensing model of Opera: it’s free as long as you can live with the commercial banners.

  • Tabbed browsing. Since I was used to Maxthon, I know now where to find my opened documents.
  • Aliases, see Maxthon
  • Capturegroups has the same functionality as the Groups in Maxthon.
  • Quick access to settings may sound silly but is a relief if you are working with Firefox on different platforms. The settings menu is hidden in different submenus depending on whether you are working in Windows, Mac or Linux. It’s cross platform, but not on that matter.
  • Quicksearch. Forget using search plugins and stuff. Netcaptor enables you to use the address bar as a search engine. Type “g SDN” and it’ll search on google. Few people know that this can be done in MIE too, if your are not afraid to alter some registry entries a bit. I’ll explain in my next web log how this can be done.
  • Address tools enable you to find additional/related info on the site which is currently opened. I like the related search keywords.
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  • PopupCaptor is yet another way of dealing with the well known problem.
  • URL blocking is very useful if you want to prevent viewing content from certain URLs. That prevents you from being accused of surfing to NSFW sites because there happens to be an ad on for “special services and content” on the normal site you were visiting. Consider it as a basic Netnanny.
  • Automatic data wiper has the same functionalities as Maxthon’s privacy protection.
  • Automatic updates, something considered as a normal feature.

 

Foxie Privacy, Security & Productivity Suite

This mouthful is a newbie and thus only at version 1.0.0 for the moment. It wants to bring the Firefox goodies to the MIE world. After installation, I was desperately looking for an icon to launch the application. Well, don’t search at all. Whereas the 2 others are real applications, this one settles itself as a plugin in MIE.

  • Tabbedbrowsing. Again the same remark, despite the intention to bring Friefox to MIE world, it doesn’t act like it. But that’s not the most annoying thing though. It doesn’t understand the usual keyboard shortcuts. Opening an extra tab needs to be done with an icon instead of the usual Ctrl-T. Same thing for closing a tab. Ctrl-W even closes the whole browser. The good news is that one can change these settings. That brings me to the next problem. Where to find the Foxie settings. Well it’s hidden in a menu under the search button.
  • Adblocker doesn’t require any further explanation.
  • The search functionality is yet another search plugin tool lacking Mycroft support.
  • Desktop search abilities are “in” these days. Foxie is doing its bit towards this. A pity that it lacks some configuration capabilities.
  • Foxie has being cadging for its groupmarks functionality. As with Netcaptor’s capturegroups it’ll open a series of predefined related sites simultaneously.
  • Popup blocking is of course a must, but it’ll also block Flash content if necessary.
  • The privacy cleaner will, as with the others, clean up your whereabouts.
  • The privacy shield will mask the HTTP headers when you’re browsing to a site that you don’t want to be traceable. In other words it allows you to surf anonymously by modifying the accept-encoding, accept-languange, referrer header, user-agent and even add random header. I personally don’t know why you would actually want to hide your identity unless for malicious purposes.
  • Swift sweeper is a very fast adware and other spyware. I can attest that it is indeed fast when it runs when installing Foxie. The other side of the coin is that he drops a stitch once in a while.
  • The security firewall is something special. It is a program derived from PeerGuardian which runs outside MIE. It resides in the Taskbar and tries to stop malware by blocking all traffic from known servers.
  • Automatic update for both functionalities as the above mentioned firewall.
  • The infinitive button will open a random site in the hope that you get something useful from it. I don’t see the point of it though.

 

Band-aid on a wooden leg

You might wonder which one you need to install. Well it depends. From an end user’s point of view I have a slight preference for Maxthon. It comes over better in my consideration, but that’s purely a personal subjective thought. Foxie lacks some maturity and is now a ragbag of good ideas but regrettably some are only half worked out.

From a web developer’s point of view, all of these wrappers are rather useless. Since none of them alter the engine itself you’re stuck on the malfunctions and missing functionalities of the current version of MIE (6). Even if they alter something, one still needs to take care. As I’ve said before many times in earlier articles and web logs, it’s always better to make things as cross browser/platform as possible. Unless you design something for an intranet and you’re 100% sure of the browser used. You can go even further and create you own extensions. Have a look at the MSDN documentation on browser extensions .

To me, Netscape 8 is a far better choice, since it also gives you a lot of goodies and you can test both Firefox and MIE compatibility. In fairness I need to say that some precautions should be taken since Netscape 8 sometimes has hiccups and doesn’t display things as they should appear in the browsers separately.

So it’s back to waiting for what the future release(s) of MIE will bring us. If you can’t wait then these wrappers can provide a temporary solution. Temporary in the sense that things might be made obsolete by or might not even work within MIE 7. Maybe you’ll have made your own selection of external specialised software by then.

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