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Andrew Mutch and Karen Ventura propose that alternative web browsers can return sanity and security to public Internet computers

Andrew Mutch and Karen Ventura (netConnect) -- netConnect, 7/15/2002

Do your users change your web browser's homepage? Do they download Yahoo Messenger to your public computers? Do they check their e-mail or surf the Internet on computers designated for catalog searching or database research? If so, you may want to consider alternative web browsers.

Two good alternatives have become available in the past two years: K-Meleon and Public Web Browser (PWB). K-Meleon's first release was in August 2000, and PWB was first distributed in February 2001. Why should librarians be excited about them? Both are easy to set up and configure. They provide library staff with more control over what their users can do on library computers. They can be easily customized to meet a variety of needs. At the same time, they support the latest web technologies and standards. By design, they are more secure. PWB (www.teamsoftwaresolutions.com) was designed by Scott Vermeersch, an experienced library IT professional, specifically with libraries in mind. It provides an alternative interface to Internet Explorer that can be customized for your library's environment. PWB also includes extra features for Internet computers in libraries. PWB has a link in the browser itself to your Internet Policy and a timer that can be set to browse home, exit, or restart PWB after a specified amount of time.

K-Meleon (kmeleon.sourceforge.net ) is an open-source web browser that has an Internet Explorer–like interface but is powered by the same code that runs the Mozilla browser. Stripped of many of the extra features found in Mozilla, K-Meleon loads quickly and renders web pages at lightning speed. While K-Meleon wasn't designed specifically for a public access environment, its flexible design makes it well suited for that use. Almost every feature in K-Meleon can be configured to library needs.

The browser challenge

 

Q&A with PWB's Scott Vermeersch

Scott Vermeersch, a resident of Rochester, MN, has been involved with the computer industry for over 15 years. At one time he owned a dial-up bulletin board system that supported custom-written software. He currently is employed as the senior analyst/programmer for a major medical library in Rochester, MN, and is the lead programmer for TeamSoftware Solutions in Rochester.

Q: Why did you originally create PWB?

Vermeersch: The original application was written in July 2000 to offer a secure web browser for public Internet access use in our libraries. After searching the web for days to find a solution to the Internet Explorer security concerns, I decided to just write my own.

Q: How did PWB move beyond your own library?

Vermeersch: There was a post in a newsgroup wanting to know how to secure Internet Explorer. I submitted a simple response—here try this—and sent the browser I created. Public Web Browser (PWB) was born.

Q: What is integral to PWB's success?

Vermeersch: I have been developing it with suggestions and comments from the library community worldwide. This seems to be the key to the strong following: if you need something added or changed, it usually gets done. The people on the front lines know what they need best, so I follow their suggestions.

Q: Where do you hope to go from here?

Vermeersch: I am hoping to evolve PWB into a complete solution for public Internet access while keeping it affordable. I enjoy programming PWB, and I hope it shows. I was excited when the hit counter went over 50, and I still am excited watching it go over 53,000!

The web browser is one of the most important programs running on the library's computers. Not only does it provide access to the web, it also provides access to web-based catalogs and electronic databases. At the same time, the web browser is expected to support the computing styles and agendas of a diverse group of users.

The most commonly used web browsers are Netscape's Navigator and Communicator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But these browsers were not designed for the general public Internet access most libraries provide. They were designed for the home or business user, who is encouraged to customize the interface, change settings, and integrate the browser into other applications. In libraries, these same features create never-ending headaches for technology staff.

As web technology has progressed, these popular web browsers have not been able to meet either the needs of library users or the technology staff. The Netscape browser that libraries rely on, Navigator 4.08, has been showing its 1998 vintage in the most painful ways. Navigator is prone to crash when it encounters complex web pages, and it often mangles web pages that use Cascading Style Sheets—-a styling language that allows web developers to define styles. Netscape 7 and Mozilla support emerging web technologies more effectively, but as with Netscape's Communicator, they include extra features like e-mail clients, web page editors, and newsgroup readers that are difficult to secure. Internet Explorer 5 and 6 do a respectable job of supporting new web technologies. However, the security holes created by Microsoft's integration of Internet Explorer into the Windows operating system are still problematic.

Taking back control

One of the biggest problems with the Netscape and Microsoft browsers is the limited control over elements of the browser interface like toolbar buttons and menus. The inability to control these elements can lead to all kinds of problems. In contrast, both PWB and K-Meleon have browser interfaces that are powerfully customizable. Depending on the computer or its intended user, you can configure one of these alternative web browsers to meet your needs.

  • Hide some default toolbar buttons, menu options, or entire menus that are not necessary in your environment. This can include removing the Open or Save functions from the File menu, and removing the Print or Search buttons on the toolbar.
  • Limit the use of the browser to a specific resource, like the online catalog. Prevent users from typing in a URL by removing the address location bar.
  • Lock in the web browser Homepage.
  • Set a group of Bookmarks/Favorites or hide all Bookmarks/Favorites.
  • Disable the right mouse click context menus.

Customizing the interface is the simplest way to control browser security. The exclusion of possibly unnecessary "features" like e-mail makes the task of securing the web browser much simpler.

However, while Public Web Browser and K-Meleon are inherently more secure than either Internet Explorer or Netscape, they only help to protect the operating system from the web browser itself. You still need to use security software or Windows policies to protect your computer's operating system against security threats from other programs, or against hackers and curious users.

Preserving privacy

Most libraries place a high priority on maintaining the privacy of their users. But common web browser features like saving a user's history and cookies can compromise user privacy. With many people sharing the same computers, libraries have a unique concern. You can set options in PWB to clear the web cache and history every time the browser is closed, or every time the browser goes back to the homepage. You can control how K-Meleon manages passwords and cookies. Either browser can be configured so that it will not save URLs to the address location bar. These options allow libraries to preserve the privacy of users in a shared computing environment.

Additional features

In addition to the security and privacy options, these browsers also incorporate other features that libraries may find particularly helpful for public Internet use.

A unique feature of PWB is its Activity and Inactivity Timers. When enabled, these timers can be set to return to the homepage, exit, or restart PWB after a specified period of time. The Inactivity Timer refreshes the web browser on a computer that is left unattended for a period of time, automatically preparing it for the next user. The Activity Timer is helpful in enforcing any time limits your library has in place for your computers.

PWB also contains direct links, through toolbar buttons and menu options, for actions that libraries would especially find valuable. PWB has a menu option to display your Internet Policy in a pop-up dialog window, perfect for users who want instant access to the policy or who do not know how to follow the policy. PWB also has a programmable toolbar button that can be set to go wherever you choose, such as an internal web page on searching the Internet. Or you can send users to a specific search engine.

One feature that can assist in the transition to K-Meleon is the ability to use custom toolbar buttons and backgrounds. If you are migrating from Netscape 4, you can replace the default Internet Explorer–like interface with a Netscape 4 toolbar button set. Users will see the familiar Netscape toolbar on a new, more powerful browser. Or you can make K-Meleon look like a Mozilla or Netscape 7 browser. You can even make K-Meleon adopt the look of a browser running on Mac OS X.

Another useful K-Meleon feature is the ability to control pop-up windows. Pop-up windows are often employed to display advertisements. But pop-up windows can be useful, so K-Meleon allows you to block just those windows that pop-up when the browser loads or exits a page. You can also limit the blocking to specific domains to stop the worst offenders.

Quick setups

With all of these features and options, how simple are these browsers to set up? Depending on the browser you choose, the setup is slightly different. The hardest part is deciding how you want to customize the browser. The actual customizing is easy.

In PWB, all of the customization settings are stored in one file, PublicBrowser.ini (in v1.x) or PWB.ini (in v2.x). You can edit the file in Notepad or any simple text editor. If a line begins with a semicolon, it is a comment describing a feature of PWB, not an active setting. If a setting does not have a value assigned to it, it is assumed that the value is False.

There are a few other important files in the customization of PWB. If you want to restrict access to a select group of web sites, you'll need to edit OnlyAccess.txt and NoAccess.txt (in v1.x) or URL.txt (in v2.x). You simply make a list of all the web sites you want to allow explicit access to or deny access to in these files. If you want to set a group of Bookmarks/Favorites, you'll need to create a list in Bookmark.txt (in v1.x) or copy Internet Shortcuts from Internet Explorer into the Favorites folder (in v2.x).

In K-Meleon, configuration files are accessible directly through the browser interface. The configuration files are a set of simple text files that you can edit to change the appearance and functionality of the browser. Turning off a menu item or removing a toolbar button is as simple as deleting the text that references the item to be disabled.

There are a number of preferences that also can be controlled through the browser interface. These include enabling and disabling K-Meleon-specific plug-ins, configuring proxy settings, enabling features like pop-up blocking, and controlling privacy settings. Once you configure these settings, you can prevent users from changing the configuration files and browser preferences by removing access to the interface. If you later decide to make changes, you can still access the configuration files using a basic text editor like Notepad.

Special requirements

Both of these web browsers run only on Windows operating systems 95, 98, ME, NT, 2000, or XP. PWB is actually an interface for Internet Explorer, so you must first have IE 5.5 or higher installed on your computer. IE can be downloaded from Microsoft's web site. There are some minimal requirements for computers running IE or PWB. They should have a Pentium processor and at least 32MB of RAM. Certainly, computers with higher specifications will work better. PWB is available as a .zip file, so you will need WinZip or a similar program to unpack the .zip file. WinZip is available from WinZip's web site.

K-Meleon will often run on older computers that cannot manage the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Mozilla/Netscape. The more RAM your computer has, the better K-Meleon will run. If you do not have Internet Explorer installed or are using a version of IE older than version 5, you will need to download and install an update to the Common Control Library. This update is available through the K-Meleon web site.

K-Meleon requires Sun's Java Runtime Environment (JRE) to run Java applets. Download and install the latest JRE release to enable Java support. A link to the JRE download location is available through the K-Meleon web site. All of the popular third-party plug-ins are compatible with K-Meleon. However, you may need to copy the appropriate plug-in files into K-Meleon's third-party plug-in directory manually to enable the plug-in. Directions on how to do this are available on the K-Meleon web site.

Future alternatives

The new version (v.2) of PWB has just been released. V.2 is a more robust version of the web browser, including the same functionality as the earlier version but with more features. For v.2, the company will charge a license fee and an annual fee of $100. The license will cover v.2, all future updates, support, and add-ons. Version one will remain available free of charge.

K-Meleon version 0.7 also has just been released. This version includes enhancements like Print Preview and improved support for frames and plug-ins. It also incorporates the latest Mozilla code and numerous bug fixes that improve the performance and stability of the browser. There is no charge to download and use K-Meleon.

Which browser is best?

For general Internet access, we recommend PWB. It is more adept than K-Meleon at handling the diverse resources on the web. PWB is also great for library catalog or online database computers, which is why Ventura chose it for the Novi PL, MI. However, as an open-source software advocate, Mutch selected K-Meleon for his library catalog computers at the Waterford Township PL. He plans to extend its use to general Internet access as K-Meleon matures.

These alternative web browsers have been in operation in both libraries, on various public computers, for over a year. They work well in the public environment on Internet stations, web catalog stations, and online database stations. Users are satisfied with the level of access to the Internet and library resources. Librarian and IT staff at these two institutions are no longer challenged by users changing homepages or downloading unwanted programs. Instead of constantly spending time trying to maintain web browsers and worrying about network security, staff have been able to focus on more productive activities, secure in the knowledge that web browsers are working for them and not against them.


Author Information
Andrew Mutch (amutch@waterford.lib.mi.us) is the Library Systems Technician, Waterford Township Public Library and the Charter Township of Waterford (CTW), MI. He also administers the web sites for the library and CTW. Karen Ventura (kknox@tln.lib.mi.us) is the Head of Technology, Novi Public Library, MI



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