Review of Firefox 1.0

A new browser, called Firefox, has just reached version 1.0. You can download this superb free browser from http://www.mozilla.org. This article provides an overview of Firefox, and of the older Mozilla browser, which comes from the same development site, and which has many of the same features. Throughout most of the article, I will treat the two browsers as if they had identical feature sets. Later in the article I will specify exactly why Firefox was created by the same organization that built Mozilla. I will explain that Firefox has a sleeker, cleaner look and feel than Mozilla, and show that it has a more intuitive set of options that will be particularly appealing to people who use the Internet Explorer (IE).

If you haven’t been using either Mozilla or FireFox, then you have been depriving yourself of one of the luxuries of the modern Internet. Firefox is clean, easy to use, and very powerful. Both these browsers run smoothly on Windows, Linux and the Mac. Best of all, they help protect you from viruses and other intrusive kinds of software such as worms or trojans.

Safety

Though no software product is perfect, Firefox and Mozilla have generally not been a hole through which spyware, worms or viruses enter a system. One of the big reasons that Firefox is safer than the Internet Explorer is simply that it is not targeted as often by crackers as Microsoft’s browser. Of course, one of the reason’s IE was targeted was because of its popularity, and it was popular in part because it was, for a short a time, arguably the best browser on the market. In the past, not choosing a Microsoft browser has meant giving up something in terms of functionality. With Firefox, however, you usually gain functionality when you switch to it from the Microsoft Internet Explorer. In the next section, Usability, I will outline exactly why the Firefox and Mozilla feature set is superior to what you find in the Internet Explorer.

Another reason that Firefox and Mozilla are safer has to do with their mail clients. Mozilla has a built in mail client, and there is a second, standalone mail client under development called Thunderbird that will work as a mail client for Firefox users. Neither of these products is nearly as prone to spreading viruses as alternative products from Microsoft such as Outlook. The safety comes in part from the aforementioned lack of attacks from crackers, but also from restrictions on the kind of scripts that will run automatically in Mozilla based mail clients.

Usability

Perhaps the most important usability feature in Firefox is tabbed browsing. This feature allows you to open tabbed pages, with one site assigned to each tab. Using tabs, you can keep three or four sites open in one browser window with virtually no sign of clutter or crowding. Most of your window shows the output from a single site. You simply select a second tab to fill in the body of the window with the contents from a second site. The system is powerful, and addicting.

Tabs are useful for everyone, but if you have a slow connection, you can use them to read one site while another is loading in the background. Another use for tabs is to keep one site open on a particular part of one page while doing research on a second site. You can then tab back and forth between the two pages to compare their content.

Tabs are a feature that newbies will probably tend to underutilize. But if you have been using Mozilla for a year or two, then you are probably already addicted to the benefits this feature brings. I know that when I have to use a browser that does not support this feature, it is a bit like trying to ride a bicycle that is missing one of its peddles. I can still manage to get around the web, but the experience is not nearly as pleasant or intuitive as when using Firefox or Mozilla.

You can create a new tab by pressing Ctrl-T, and you can close a tab by pressing Ctrl-W. I use Ctrl-Tab to switch between the open tabs in my browser. This is such a simple, easy to use system that it will quickly, and permanently, change your browser habits once you learn how to utilize it. There are also special options, like having links open automatically in another tab, rather than having them replace your current window. There are various ways to customize this feature to meet your needs. For instance, you can right click and select to open a link in a new window, or in a new tab.

Another key feature is built in popup control, which again works to keep your desktop neat and manageable. You can select on a site by site basis whether or not to allow popups, and you can get a visual clue when a popup has been suppressed.

The personnel toolbar folder allows you to place frequently visited sites in a toolbar at the top of your window. After using this feature for a few weeks, you will find it difficult or impossible to go back to using browsers that work the old fashioned way. I use this toolbar to link to my most commonly visited sites, such as Google, Slashdot, the New York Times, Beliefnet, Amazon, NewsForge, etc.

Firefox and Mozilla store their "favorites," which they call "bookmarks," in an HTML file. This means you can edit your list of bookmarks in a text editor, and you can easily pass it on to friends, or simply publish it on your web site.

Themes are a nice feature that allow you to quickly and easily customize the colors, icons, and general look and feel of your browser. One wants to have some ability to personalize the look and feel of an application. A buttoned down corporate type might want one look and feel, an aging hippy another look, punk rockers a third, goths a fourth, soccer moms a fifth, and so on. With themes, you can make the buttons, tabs, and window dressing on your browser take on a look and feel appropriate to your way of life.

Both Mozilla and Firefox offer tools for handling cookies and passwords. In particular, they both offer an excellent system for maintaining a list of passwords that you use at various sites. This list is easy to customize, so that you can update items or delete them as needed. If you sometimes sign into the same site with multiple logins, the browser will automatically pop up a list of user names from which you can select the one you want when you go to a particular site. If you have only one login for a site, it is filled in for you automatically, so that you need only press the OK button to log in. This is in contrast to the clumsy Microsoft IE system, which makes you type in at least the first letter of a user name each time you sign in to a new site. I thought the Microsoft system was great when I first saw it, but Firefox and Mozilla have gone them one better on this feature.

I’m a mature developer, with the venerable five oh birthday not too far ahead of me. As a result, I sometimes find web sites designed by young whippersnappers with lasered eyes virtually unreadable due to their miniscule 8 or 6 point fonts. Firefox and Mozilla allow you to press Ctrl Plus and Ctrl Minus to expand or shrink the current font across the breadth of an entire page. This ability to switch font sizes so quickly is great when you are browsing from one site to another. You can expand the font when you hit sites with little ants crawling across the page where there should be type, and you can shrink the font when you reach sites where the print is so big that it is forcing you to scroll too often.

The search feature in Firefox is excellent. After pressing Ctrl-F, my cursor is placed in an edit control at the bottom of the browser. As I type, I get an incremental search through the page. For instance, if I type in the letter G, then I am taken to the first word on the page that begins with G. If I type in Ge, then I move to the first word that begins with Ge, etc. Other features, such as find next, highlight, match case, are also exceptionally easy to access from the control bar at the bottom of the browser. The point here is that one does not need to deal with a search dialog that obscures part of the page you are trying to view. This system is available at this time only in Firefox, and not in Mozilla. It alone is nice enough to tempt me to give up my old favorite browser and move over permanently to Firefox.

What all of these features do is allow you to customize your browsing experience to meet your needs. Firefox and Mozilla offer their users many options; they give you the chance to customize your experience so you can work in the most disciplined, efficient and pleasant way possible.

Technical Benefits

Mozilla and FireFox are built on top of open standards. Other browsers encourage developers to use proprietary API’s that fragment the Internet community and lock unsuspecting users into single platform solutions, thus depriving users of freedom and limiting everyone’s options. Proprietary API’s can sometimes supply developers with useful tools, but they bind everybody, developers and users alike, to solutions designed to benefit not the public at large, but the needs of a single corporation. Both Firefox and Mozilla support standards developed by internationally recognized committees such as the World Wide Web Consortium. These committees get input from multiple corporations, and from ordinary users, and create standards that meet the needs of the public and of the entire marketplace. The extremely high conformance to these standards found in Firefox and Mozilla gives you a chance to experience the highest quality browsing experience. A side benefit is that they show you immediately when you have landed on a web site that is supporting proprietary standards. As a rule, it is against your interest to do business with any company that is trying to lock you into a proprietary standard. They are interested in their own gain, not in serving your needs. Why would you want to do business with, or give your time to, someone who is trying to deprive you of your freedom, or who is simply indifferent to your needs or preferences?

Developers will also appreciate the advanced JavaScript and HTML debugging tools that come with Mozilla and Firefox. These tools are greatly superior to anything else I have seen in any browser or toolset when it comes to helping you debug complex web pages. The available tools include a javascript debugger, a DOM inspector, and a number of add-ins that can provide hundreds of custom features for developers. This is not the place to explore these tools, but many of these tools are rich enough to merit exploration in lengthy technical articles. You need not install these advanced features if they do not interest you. If you do install them, they are discreetly kept out of the way, and will not hinder you during normal browsing sessions.

I should add that the Gecko rendering engine is a platform in itself. If you are a developer looking to create advanced, cross platform web applications, there are a number of rich API’s available from the Mozilla web site that can help you build standard conformant solutions to complex development problems. Visit the Mozilla developer page to get started on this quest.

Downsides

The downsides to Firefox and Mozilla are few and far between, but they do exist. Almost certainly the most common problem is that some financial sites use proprietary API’s when doing financial transactions. When I encounter those sites, and have to use them for one reason or another, then I just switch over to IE. But this is not a common problem. For instance, it is unlikely that you would encounter this kind of thing with a widely known brand name such as Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, an airline ticket reseller, a bank, or any big company with a nationally known brand name. If you do encounter a site that does not support Firefox, then generally a letter to the management explaining why you are doing business with their competitor will quickly bring them into conformance with open standards.

The majority of big sites on the web use Java or PHP to perform these kinds of financial transactions, and Java and PHP are well known standards that work fine with Firefox and Mozilla. There are also many Microsoft API’s that conform to standards. In fact, there is nothing inherent in ASP.NET or most other Microsoft standards that make it impossible to use them with Firefox or Mozilla. Developers who create sites that lock you into IE are often not intending to do that, and they are frequently willing to clean up their code if you report the problem.

In general, most sites want to get every transaction they possibly can, so they make sure their tools conform to standards. They don’t want, for instance, to lose all users who choose Linux, Unix or the Mac, nor do they want to lose or aggravate users who prefer standard conformant browsers. I personally prefer to do financial transactions in Firefox or Mozilla, since they are hacked less often, and would therefore seem to me to be a safer way to perform an online transaction. Certainly I have been using Mozilla for years to do hundreds of financial transactions without any untoward incidents that I have noticed.

Another potential, though infrequently encountered, problem with Firefox is that some sites use proprietary API’s for the generation of web pages. As a result, some of these sites will not render correctly in Mozilla or Firefox. But this happens less and less frequently as time passes. I’m not sure I can think of any site, other than Microsoft’s, where I have encountered any serious rendering problems (other than very tiny fonts) in the last six months. And I should add that Microsoft’s site has improved several fold in terms of conformance to standards over the last two years. Clearly they are making a concerted effort to make sure their site renders correctly in browsers that conform to standards. Still, if I dig deeply enough into the site, I can sometimes have troubles using it. In such cases, I just switch over to Windows and pop up IE. If I were a bit more organized, I could even run CrossOver office and have a copy of IE running on my Linux box. When I am using Windows, it is simple to switch over to IE. In fact, there is an add-in for Firefox that will allow you to automatically bring up a page in IE if you encounter problems viewing it.

I should add, that I almost always have found web masters not only willing, but anxious to bring their sites into conformance if I point out that they don’t render correctly in a standards based browser. After all, it is much easier to fix a web page than it is to rewrite a financial system. As a result, getting developers to clean up a non-conformant web page is usually not a big problem.

A few years ago, when Mozilla was first hitting its stride, I had conversations about rendering problems with several web masters, and they usually wrote back immediately, asked what the problem was, and quickly fixed it. By this time, however, most serious web developers test against both IE and Mozilla/Firefox, and ensure that their site renders correctly in both browsers. That is usually simply a matter of making sure that their code conforms to open standards. All web site developers who care about their users needs and preferences will want to support open standards. As mentioned earlier, it is generally a very bad sign when you encounter a web site that is trying to force you to use a proprietary API.

Such things can be very subjective, but I have heard some people state that it seems to them that Firefox takes longer to load than the Internet Explorer. This is possible, since IE is so integrated into the Windows OS that most of it is probably in memory even before you launch the browser. Mozilla has a feature that will keep it in memory, thus cutting down on launch time. But this has never been a issue for me. Both Mozilla and Firefox launch in under five seconds, and usually in only one or two seconds, on my system, which is fast enough for me. In terms of surfing sites after the browser is loaded, my subjective experience is that both Mozilla and Firefox are at least as fast, and probably considerably faster, than IE. But I make no claim to having benchmarked any of these performance issues. The only firm statement I can make in this regard is that I have never found performance to be anything remotely like a problem when using either Firefox or Mozilla.

Firefox vs Mozilla

In this review I have treated Firefox and Mozilla as if they were one product. As a long time Mozilla user, they do in fact seem very similar to me. The question then, is why was Firefox developed by the same open source group that creates Mozilla? What is the difference between the two browsers?

Both Firefox and Mozilla are built around the same engine, called Gecko. This engine ensures superb, speedy rendering of web sites in either browser.

In general, Firefox was designed from the start to be a cleaner, less cluttered version of Mozilla. Sometimes these benefits come at a price. For instance, Firefox does not contain a built in mail client, and Mozilla does. Since the Mozilla mail client is excellent, I tend to like having it as part of my browser. But there is no question that having the mail client built into the browser makes it bigger and bulkier.

The Mozilla browser is the basis for modern versions of the Netscape browser, such as Netscape 6 and above. As a result, the Netscape team had a good deal to say about what features needed to be included in Mozilla. The Firefox team got their inspiration in part from a desire to create a browser built around the best of the Mozilla technology, without any of the clutter that was accumulated along the way due to input from Netscape or other users.

The Firefox engineers created their own development charter. One of their goals, as defined in that charter, was not "to have more or less features than any other client (Mozilla included) but to have the right set of features to let people get their jobs done."

In particular, the Firefox team tried to make Firefox easy to use for users who were migrating from the Internet Explorer. There are a number of features in Mozilla that might seem odd, old fashioned, or just plain dumb to people who are used to the Internet Explorer. This is particular true of the Mozilla configuration options, which are reached by selecting Edit | Preferences. That menu selection will seem odd to many IE users, and the dialog that opens will seem foreign to IE users. In Firefox, one chooses Tools | Options, much as one would expect to do in a Microsoft product. The dialog that opens up not only conforms to standards used in Microsoft applications, but to my eye does them one better in terms of attractiveness and ease of use. I’m very used to the options found in Mozilla, but I found it easy to configure Firefox once I got over the shock of finding how much the paradigm had changed.

Despite the fact that Firefox follows many Windows user interface standards, it is still available on Linux and the Mac. My experience is that Firefox is not yet as completely bug free on Linux as is Mozilla. In my experience, Mozilla on Linux is rock solid. In fact, it is one of the best tools that I use on any platform, and it runs without flaw on Linux. I’m sure that Firefox will soon have the same reputation on Linux as it does on Windows, where it appears to me to run absolutely flawlessly. Firefox is a very clean, mean machine on Windows. It is elegant, easy to use, and very responsive.

Install

Installing either Firefox or Mozilla is extremely simple. You can download Firefox for free from the Firefox home page. Once you have the install file on your system, you need only double click on the downloaded executable to begin the effortless installation process. A few moments later, you will have installed or upgraded your copy of Firefox, and you will be ready to begin browsing.

Any favorites, bookmarks or related settings that you had in IE or in Mozilla can be automatically and smoothly imported into Firefox during the installation. When you pop open the browser, you will have all the features you had in IE, plus new features such as popup blocking, tabbed windows and the advanced search and developer tools.

Since customization is an important part of Firefox, you have some choice about which features are installed. For instance, you need not install the developer tools if you don’t want them. But there is nothing at all complicated about the install process, and anyone who is able to download a file should be able to run the install with little trouble. Adding in themes or optional developer features is automated once you have Firefox installed.

You can also order a CD and guidebook from Mozilla at a nominal price.

Summary

In this article you have learned a little bit about the new Firefox 1.0 release, and also about the Mozilla browser. Both Firefox and Mozilla are built around the same advanced, standards conformant, rendering engine, called Gecko. As a result, they both offer the same high quality experience when browsing. Mozilla has more features than Firefox, but Firefox will be more familiar to Windows users, and it has a cleaner, more stripped down, more elegant design than Mozilla.

I was originally drawn to Mozilla simply because it ran on Linux. However, the addition of tabs and the personal toolbar soon led me to switch when I was on Windows.

But it wasn’t just the superior browsing experience, the excellent mail client, and the increased safety, that made me a complete convert to Mozilla and/or Firefox on both Linux and Windows. Others may not feel this way, but I don’t really like getting all my solutions from a single company. To me, it is a bit unnerving to load up Microsoft Windows, load up Microsoft Office, and then load up the Microsoft Internet Explorer and Microsoft Outlook. I’m not foolish enough to insist that these aren’t good products. Though far from perfect, they are certainly reliable tools. But for me, getting locked into a Microsoft only proprietary solution to all my computing needs just feels claustrophobic. I feel like they might as well just go ahead and stamp the company logo across my forehead if I’m going to live that kind of life. Computing is such a broad, interesting experience, why be locked into one company’s vision of what it is all about?

I compute 8 to 14 hours a day, often 6, and sometimes 7, days a week. The idea of spending all my time using one company’s products just seems in some small way to be a relinquishment of my personal sense of freedom, of independence. Some people who are more attracted to authority might get a sense of comfort from knowing that they have one big daddy who gives them all that they need. I’m just not built that way. I like using Microsoft Windows because it is a good operating system, but I prefer to get my other computing needs met by other companies. If I have no choice, then I will use Microsoft tools, but when superior technology such as Firefox comes along, then it is easy for me to switch away from IE.

Of course, that argument might hold no weight with you. In that case, Firefox can only offer its superior technology and its clean, smart look and feel. Give it a try. My bet is that you will think it looks nicer, handles better, and has a superior feature set to any competing browser. Even the aging Mozilla browser is a considerable technical step forward from IE.

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