We are used to choosing utility software based on simple, measurable, yardsticks. We choose things like word processors, video editors, IDEs and email clients based on what they can do and at what price.
For a long time this is how web browsers were selected too; we concerned ourselves with questions like is it free? Can it render tables, fonts and frames? Can it understand layer tags or ActiveX components? Will it render my favourite website or my intranet? Does it have tabs? Is it fast?
Over the years, as our dependency on the web has grown and the incidence and seriousness of cybercrime have increased, things have changed.
These days browsers compete on their ability to safeguard our privacy and security and choosing the right one is more about how we feel than about what they can objectively do. In a word, it’s about trust.
firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something
Where you choose to put your faith is a big deal because everything you do on the web passes through your browser.
Amongst other things your browser tells you which websites can be trusted, runs unknown code for you, negotiates encryption, remembers passwords and cleans up behind you if you want to be incognito.
It goes everywhere with you in the virtual world and, more often than not, it knows exactly where you are in the real world too.
And of course it isn’t simply a matter of trusting the code – there is also the matter of trusting its creator.
Web browsers are very large and complex pieces of software under almost constant development. Despite this they are given away completely free.
Such is the cost of producing a competitive product that there are relatively few major browsers and all of them have some kind of technical or financial link with at least one of the great web behemoths.
Google, Microsoft and Apple all produce their own browsers and which of them hasn’t given us reason to be circumspect at one time or another?
Internet Explorer is not the lightning rod for exploits it once was and it is the only browser on our list with Do Not Track switched on by default. It is also the only one on our list with an entirely secret, closed-source, codebase.
Google and Apple are much more fashionable and desirable brands than Microsoft but behind the gloss they are corporate goliaths too and their reach into our modern lives is extraordinary.
The rendering engine of Apple’s Safari browser, a significant component that it shares with Chrome, is open to inspection but the rest of it is not.
Chromium is an open source project created by Google and it used to build both the Chromium and Chrome browsers. All of the code, including the updater and RLZ library that only exist in Chrome, is open-source and publicly available.
That limpet-like maverick Opera is now also based on Chromium.
Firefox has an independent codebase that is entirely open to inspection but the Mozilla Foundation that produces it is almost entirely funded by revenue from search partners like Google, Microsoft and YAHOO! The vast majority comes from Google.
Please take a moment to fill in our poll and tell us about your choice in the comments. Don’t forget that you are not necessarily voting for the browser you like the most, or even the one you use the most. We’re asking to to think carefully about which browser you trust the most.