Perhaps there's something in the air this month, other than a couple of tons of pollen per square yard, but people seem to be very jittery about their online experience. It all started last summer, when thousands of underoccupied school kids snarled up their family PCs with spyware. Right now, most of the adults who run around the offices I frequent are screaming like postmodern Chicken Littles: "The Internet isn't working!" What they mean is that their browsers aren't working. They're trying to go about their business, picking up Web-based e-mail, registering for mailing lists, signing up at various sites, and it's just not going according to plan.
It all boils down to the same problem: all Web browsers are not created equal. The software you pick to take you through the Web can vastly affect your experience online. And as a case in point...
AOL? A-oh no!
Six people at the office mounted a grouch campaign last week that the e-mail server wasn't working for them. The logs insisted otherwise: no outages, no problem. But when they tried to log on to the Web-mail interface at home...no dice.
It all boils down to the same problem: all Web browsers are not created equal. The software you pick to take you through the Web can vastly affect your experience online.
On a related note, over a very pleasant Vietnamese dinner on the weekend, my sister-in-law vented her frustrations about a problem with Yahoo Groups: the site just wasn't letting her join. She'd get through entering username, password, and impertinent personal details and click Submit. Then she'd get a rejection error message suggesting she may have a virus or spyware or finicky security settings. On a bog-standard installation (Sue's not one to tinker with settings), this struck me as very odd indeed.
What do these two issues have in common? America Online. When she fired up her notebook and launched AOL 9.0, Yahoo Groups did indeed refuse to accept the registration page.
Like most techie types, I know a few things well, and I make educated guesses at everything else. The AOL browser is one of those things I don't know, and the scripting behind Yahoo Groups is another. So instead of parading my ignorance or wasting time guessing, I just dodged the issue altogether. I fired up Internet Explorer and used the still-running AOL dial-up connection to load the Yahoo Groups pages. The sign-up went without a hitch.
Same connection. Different browser. Different results. Mission accomplished.
It turned out that the office malcontents had the same browser and the same root problem. Sure enough, launching Internet Explorer to log in to our Ipswitch mail server did the trick. There have been smiles around the water cooler ever since.
But it won't last.
Back in the mid-1990s, when the Web was young and Alanis Morissette was still bitter, fans of early browsers Mosaic and Netscape Navigator used to call Microsoft's offering Internet Exploder. It's more like Internet Explodee now: virus makers, script kids, and spyware exploiters look for any chink in any Microsoft product and try to blow it up.
I'm sure it won't be long before the people I directed away from the AOL browser will soon be hit with a welter of other problems. I've already weathered the first wave of mystery problems and come up with a couple of quick fixes to tide things over. The first sleuthing job was the Case of the Immutable Home Page. The page in question was, well, not suitable for office viewing, and the pale-faced innocent who was stuck with it (and the welter of pop-ups in its wake) swore it just appeared. I suspected a case of mouse trapping, a vile practice in which miscreants register slight misspellings of popular sites and do whatever they can to make visitors miserable. This case had them all: spawning porn, serving serial advertising, changing home page settings, and fixing it so that you can't change them back. Whenever I tried to get to the Tools > Internet Options menu, I was told that a policy was in place to prevent that, and I should see my administrator about it. I was the administrator, and the policy wasn't mine.
There are several quick fixes for this, but to release a hijacked home page properly, you have to get your hands dirty in Windows Registry. You start out by opening the Registry Editor (Start, Run, type in regedit, and press OK). Then you navigate the strange land of registry keys, clicking through HKEY_Current_User to Software, then Microsoft, Internet Explorer, and Main. To change a home page, you double-click the key Start Page and enter a valid URL, http:// and all, into the box labeled Value data. Click OK, and you're away.
I'm not quite ready to drop IE altogether, but if Firefox can handle the vagaries of sloppy Web app programming as I test it over the next few weeks, it could become the browser of choice.
To release the entire Internet Options menu so that you can delete cookies, clear your History list, and so on, you need to navigate to a different key. You start again clicking through HKEY_Current_User to Software, then go to Policies, Microsoft, Internet Explorer, and Restrictions. In the right-hand panel of Regedit, you'll see a key called NoBrowserOptions with a data value of 0x0000000001. In registryspeak, that 1
at the end means the Internet Options menu is locked. Double-click the word NoBrowserOptions and change the Value data to a zero instead of a 1. Click OK and restart Internet Explorer, and you should be free and clear.
Where to from here?
Yep, the Chicken Littles may have it right here, and rather than stay one step ahead of the Internet Explorer Exploders, I'm starting to recommend some alternatives to more flexible browsers. My CNET colleague Robert Vamosi corralled a massive roundup review of alternative browsers, and it's a good place to start if you're thinking of casting your net beyond the default Windows Internet Explorer.
If you're on a Mac, you're best off sticking with Safari RSS. If you're on Windows, Mozilla Firefox is a blistering piece of work. I'm not quite ready to drop IE altogether, but if Firefox can handle the vagaries of sloppy Web app programming as I test it over the next few weeks, it could become the browser of choice. As yet, my biggest gripe about it is the tabbed interface for multiple open Web pages. As a convulsive user of the Alt-Tab key trick for switching windows, I can handle multiple windows more easily than reaching for a mouse to click on a tab. But hey, not everyone solves browser problems by editing registry keys. Perhaps damning a program for using a tabbed-folder design is high praise indeed.
So what issues do you have with your browser (whatever browser that is)? How do you get around them? Tell us in the TalkBack section below.