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Shell-Collecting For Your PC

I recently wrote a positive review of Mozilla Firefox, a new free Internet browser that promises to have better security and more user-friendly features than Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Firefox is the work of the non-profit Mozilla Foundation. It - along with Opera, Netscape and other excellent products - helps provide an alternative to Microsoft's omnipresent web browser.

As I mentioned in the review, the downside to Firefox and most other alternatives to Internet Explorer is that they don't work properly with a few web sites that require the use of Internet Explorer. Personally, I find this regrettable and blame the web site operators (Microsoft chief among them) rather than the folks who created the alternative browsers.

Still, if you're a web surfer, sometimes you have to go to one of those sites. Of course, even if you use a different browser, you still have Microsoft Internet Explorer on your machine so you can always just run Explorer when you need it. Or you can consider using Maxthon, a free and excellent alternative "browser" that's nearly 100 percent compatible with Explorer.

I put browser in quotes because, technically, Maxthon isn't really a browser. It's a "shell" or user interface that works with Explorer. As a user, you might not even realize that.

Once you download Maxthon, it appears to operate as if it's a standalone browser, but it's actually using some of the code from Explorer. In technical terms, that makes it a shell because it doesn't actually render the web pages itself but uses the Internet Explorer's rendering "engine."

The fact that Maxthon uses Explorer's code is both good and bad. The good is that it means that virtually any page that works with Explorer will work with Maxthon. It also means that Maxthon will work with many (though not all) of Explorer's add-ons such as the Google toolbar. But it also means that Maxthon inherits some of Explorer's now infamous security flaws.

Still, flaws or no flaws, Maxthon is worth looking at. Like Firefox, Opera, Netscape and some other browsers, Maxthon offers tabbed browsing. That means you don't have to have multiple windows to view multiple web pages. Instead, each web page or site you're browsing can be viewed within the same window by clicking on a tab at the top of the screen. That can make life much easier for those of us who need to quickly bounce back and forth between multiple web pages.

Also, like most other non-Microsoft browsers, Maxthon blocks pop-up ads. Not only does that make surfing more pleasant because you don't' have to put up with ads that block your view or clutter your desktop but it also makes it a bit more secure because pop-up ads have been associated with malicious virus-like code that jeopardizes your security and privacy.

Maxthon has other useful features not found in Internet Explorer including "super drag and drop" which lets you quickly open a link in a new tab just by dragging the link to a blank area of the page. It also has mouse gestures that allow you to issue commands by holding down the right button and moving the mouse in a certain direction. It feels strange at first, but it can actually be a lot more efficient than issuing commands via the keyboard, menus or icons.

Maxthon is a free program. Users are encouraged make a donation its developers but you're under no obligation. The program, which recently changed its name from "MyIE2" seems to be the work of a consortium of programmers located in various parts of the world.

From what I can tell, there doesn't appear to be a company or even a non-profit organization behind the project and at least one of the main programmers is located in China. I sent an e-mail to one of the developers requesting a telephone interview but it was suggested that I conduct the interview by e-mail because, "I am not a native English speaker."

The program has no built-in help system but there is some help information on the web page, though some of it is in broken English. There is an online forum where users can ask questions and get prompt answers from developers and other users.

The program is also a work in progress. The current version is marked as a "beta" (pre-release) and there are frequent updates each with some minor bug fixes. The people behind the product say they do not recommend the beta version for novice users, but so far in my testing I've found only a few minor bugs and no serious flaws but that doesn't mean there couldn't be problems I haven't yet encountered.

Personally, I prefer using Maxthon over Internet Explorer but I doubt very much that Bill Gates is losing much sleep over an internationally diverse group of programmers seeking to build a better browser. Yet, I sleep better knowing that there are alternatives out there to that One Big Company in Redmond, Washington, that has become so dominant over the past several years.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid

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