Apple's announcement that it will add significantly stronger privacy protections to its Safari browser should remind everybody, even people not using Apple’s software, that you don’t have to stick with the same old browser.
That's especially true now that Apple, Microsoft and Firefox developer Mozilla are putting renewed effort into competing with Google’s Chrome – the web's dominant desktop browser with 62.9 percent of that market in Net Applications’ measurements and 66.93 percent in StatCounter’s metrics. It's also the default browser on most Android phones.
This four-player competition leaves you with some interesting choices to make based on which desktop and mobile operating system you use and the browsers available for it.
• On a Mac, you can switch from Safari to Chrome or Firefox; Microsoft has not shipped a Mac version of Edge.
• On Android, your leading replacements for Chrome as the default browser are Firefox and Edge.
• Sorry, iOS users; you can’t set another browser as the default, and Apple requires that such third-party browsers as the iOS versions of Chrome, Firefox and Edge be built on the same framework code as Safari.
Within those constraints, if privacy is your priority, Safari is the strongest option. It already blocks a lot of third-party tracking by default, and the upcoming version arriving with iOS 12 and macOS Mojave this fall will also block the tracking done by Like and Share buttons of such social networks as Facebook.
(Since USA TODAY’s site includes those buttons as well as Facebook-based comments, expect a dialog asking if you want Facebook to track your activity here before interacting with those features.)
Firefox offers comparable tracking protection, but it’s not turned on by default. To activate, click or tap its three-horizontal-lines menu button, select “Preferences” and then “Privacy & Security.”
Chrome’s strongest selling point remains security. Google has stayed well ahead of Apple, Microsoft and Firefox in such areas as supporting stronger site encryption and allowing you to confirm a login by plugging in a “U2F” USB security key (an option Google added in 2014) instead of having to grab your phone and enter a two-step verification code.
Edge was until last fall a Windows-only product, and it has offered some thoughtful features, like the ability to mark up a page using the cursor, your fingertip or a stylus. Microsoft has also touted Edge’s ability to extend a laptop’s battery life, although recent third-party testing suggests Chrome is closing that gap.
If your biggest complaint about the web is the visual clutter on many pages, Safari, Edge and Firefox offer “reader” views that show just the core text and maybe some images of a page. Safari’s works at more sites (for instance, USA TODAY’s) and even lets you set especially noisy sites to open automatically in Reader mode.
Chrome lacks that feature but now automatically blocks the most disruptive ad formats. Speaking of annoying formats: If a site still insists you run Adobe’s on-the-way-out Flash plug-in, Chrome and Edge are your safest options to view that content, since both embed a locked-down version of that software.
If you want to keep your bookmarks and browsing history in sync across multiple devices, you’ll have to stick to one company’s browser on all your devices. Note that Chrome’s sync feature requires storing your browsing history with Google, although you can add a passphrase to secure that data from its ad tracking.
Some sites may require Google Chrome or work better in that browser, which is not a good thing for the overall health of the web as an open medium. That reminds me too much of the bad old days of Internet Explorer dominating that market.
And on that note: If you still use Internet Explorer, stop. Microsoft is putting its energy into the faster, more compatible and more secure Edge; if your PC runs Windows 7 or 8 instead of Edge’s required Win 10, switching to Chrome or Firefox will provide vastly better security on the web. Yes, I know the browser stats cited above show more people using IE than Edge; that doesn’t make it right or smart.