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Mozilla Firefox

The New Browser of Choice

By Robert Bradeen

Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE), the browser of choice for over 80% of the Internet population. Right? Well that really depends on how you define choice.

The vast majority of people who buy a computer are buying a system with some version of the Windows operating system already installed. Or, you sit at work all day in front of a computer that already had Windows installed for you. Regardless of where you use a computer to access the Internet, the odds are that it was preinstalled with Windows, and therefore IE, before you ever used it.

IE is easy and convenient for most people. If you have a connection to the Internet, just click the big blue E on your desktop, and you are surfing the net. No thinking. What's the problem?

Unfortunately for Microsoft there are indeed a few problems. And, any regular user of IE can quickly point out the annoyances they have while using the browser.

When I talk to people who use IE, the first complaint always seems to be, the constant bombardment by what seems to be an endless stream of pop-up ads. I'm quick to rub in the fact that I never have to deal with pop-up ads when I'm using my browser.

Another big complaint I hear is from those, like myself, that find it much easier to have multiple sites open at once. They find that in no time at all they may have 5 or more instances of IE open, which quickly clutters the task bar, and with other programs open can sometimes make it nearly impossible to find the window you are looking for.

Others read a few articles on the security of IE, and come to realize that it's no more secure than a house with no glass in the windows or locks on the doors, and a big sign out front that says, "Come in and take whatever you want."

Doesn't sound like very much of a choice now does it?

"Yeah, but IE has everything I need, it usually works, I can deal with the annoyances, and really what else is there to choose from?" you might be asking yourself.

Well there are more web browsers out there than you might think. I just did a search and found no fewer than 50 different browsers. Most are designed for specific needs, like being kid friendly, compact to run on older systems, text only, and many others. I have downloaded and used about 10 of the more viable solutions. But, realistically there are just the four big boys to consider right now: IE, Netscape, Opera, and Mozilla.

Most people have at least heard of, and about 10-20% use, Netscape, which like IE is a perfectly adequate browser. It has most of the same features as IE, an interface similar to IE, and in many aspects is better than IE. The main problem with Netscape is that it's not a significant enough improvement over IE to motivate people to bother to switch. Also, like IE, Netscape is a suite of programs, many of which people never even use.

Opera is an interesting little browser. It is designed to be compact and run on a wide variety of platforms and architectures. I swore by Opera for quite some time, and fell in love with many of the features. The main problem with it was the number of sites I ran across that could not be displayed correctly. I found myself far too often having to open up IE for sites that could not handle Opera, and before I knew it, I was back to using IE more often than Opera. What finally did Opera in was the fact that it had the smallest area for viewing web pages, of all the other browsers, and a quite annoying ad that was constantly changing in the top corner of the program.

My search to find the perfect browser continued.

In January of 1998, Netscape decided to release their browser code to the public, thereby making that code open source. Which basically means it's free for anybody to download and use, or distribute to others as long as it remains unchanged. It also means that programmers, anywhere in the world, can work on the code and fix things that are broken, or change things they feel could be improved upon, but only as long as those changes are registered with a central database and approved.

The Mozilla Project was born.

Mozilla was created as Netscape went to open source, so there would be a central depository for all suggested changes to the code. A list of approved changes would be periodically incorporated into the code then a new public release would be offered.

The Mozilla Project gives its name to its premier browser suite. You can download and install the Mozilla browser for free, and it has all of the same features of the other browser suits, including integrated e-mail, newsgroup, and chat software to name a few. But once again like IE and Netscape, it has much of the bloat that many web surfers don't need or don't know how to use for that matter.

Mozilla launched the Firefox (then Firebird) project in September of 2002, with the intent of creating a browser that would revolutionize the way we surf the web. The idea is to create a browser that includes all of the features the typical surfer needs, without the bloat that the others add. Firefox, now slated to become the premier browser of The Mozilla Foundation, (created in July of 2003 to help the Mozilla Project with financing and legal issues) is scheduled for release in September of 2004, as a beta version 1.0.

I'm currently using version 0.9 and have been using it since version 0.7 when it was still called Firebird (for legal reasons they were forced to change the name). Since Firefox has not been "officially" released, no promises can be made about its stability. But, I can attest, after running it through the ringer for a year, it is the most stable browser I've ever used. I've had no problems with it crashing, and 99% of the sites on the Internet are viewable by Firefox. The only problems I've encountered, viewing sites, are not specific to Firefox.

There are a few sites out there that are designed in such a way that they will only work with IE, and some that will only work with specific versions of IE. This, in my mind, is not a failing of the browser, but rather lack of foresight by the designer. Any site designer so obtuse as to program a site that can only be viewed with IE, is not worth much of my time.

As far as I'm concerned I have found the perfect browser.

Firefox meets and exceeds all of my expectations as a regular user of the Internet. Its free, fast, compact, easy to use, intuitive, offers all of the features I'm used to (even improves on some), and adds features I've been dreaming of.

Pop-up Blocker

One of the most intriguing features of Firefox is its built in pop-up blocker. There are many programs out there, which in theory will stop pop-up ads. I've used a few of them, all worked reasonably well, but none of them stopped all the unwanted content.

Then there's Firefox. Firefox has a built-in pop-up blocker. There is no need to install additional software. It is configured right out of the box to block everything that tries to open a new window of any kind, automatically. And, it's not just a "mindless" pop-up blocker. There are a myriad of options, among those the ability to allow pop-ups on which ever sites you choose.

I've been using the original installation pop-up configuration (which is set to what Mozilla calls the least annoying) since I first set up the browser, and I've never had one unwanted pop-up ad.

For me the efficiency of the pop-up blocker has been the single most compelling reason to stay with Firefox. All the other features are just gobs of double chocolate icing on the cake.

Tabbed Browsing

Tabbed browsing is not something new to Firefox. The idea has been around for a few years now. The Mozilla Suite, and Opera both use tabbed browsing. In fact, the major reason I stuck with Opera so long was because of how much I enjoyed using the tabbed browsing feature. Unfortunately, I encounter loads of people that have never experienced the joys of tabbed browsing, or are scared away by how different the concept is to them.

I had my doubts when I first experienced tabbed browsing. I had become very used to the old, and much more inefficient way of doing things. But, as I became more familiar with the concept, I couldn't imagine having multiple instances of the same browser open ever again.

So what exactly is tabbed browsing?

Many people find they have the need to have more than one web site at a time open. As for me I sometimes have ten or more different sites open at any given time. With IE this would require having ten or more different windows open on your desktop just for IE alone. Not to mention any other windows you may have open for your other programs. Before you know it your task bar is an incomprehensible row of tiny rectangles. All of that changes with Firefox and it's tabbed browsing.

Firefox, like it's big brother Mozilla, offers a feature called tabbed browsing. Instead of having to open a new instance of your browser for each site you visit, you can have them all open in one browser window, which you then switch between using tabs.

Tabbed browsing helps to keep your Desktop and Task Bar clutter free. It also helps keep you more productive, as it is much easier to find one of your open sites in the tabs then to search your Task Bar for the correct instance of IE.

Firefox tabs are highly customizable right from the initial install. But for an unprecedented level customizability, I've installed something called Tabbrowser Extensions (I'll get into extensions later), which allows an endless array of configuration options. I can configure the tabs to perform in any manner I like using this extension.

Extensions

Firefox comes as a lean mean browsing machine. The download for IE is between 8.7MB and 12.7MB, depending on the operating system. The download for Firefox is only 4.7MB. I just checked my system and the IE install folder alone takes up nearly 45MB, and the Firefox install directory is right around 20MB, about half the size of the IE install. Now while the difference of 20MB isn't much of a concern on today's hard drives which are quite often 80GB or larger, it's more the principle of the thing. Firefox is a much more functional browser at half the size.

The reason IE is so large (and such a big memory hog) is because everything that any person could possibly need, and them some, has been programmed into the browser. The questionable programming, which adds unnecessary bloat, is a topic for another article or even a book. The point being, IE has stuff programmed into it that the vast majority of people will never use, but it's all still installed just the same.

Firefox, on the other hand, has code that has been trimmed down and streamed-lined. When you download Firefox you get a fast compact program that has all of the features of IE that everybody is used to, but removes the code bloat that ends up slowing browsing down, and actually is the cause of some security holes in browsers like IE.

Now it's important to note that while Firefox is half the size of IE, it has all if not more of the functionality of IE. If you just download Firefox you will have a robust browsing experience, which pales in comparison to any of the other major browsers. But, your options don't stop there.

Firefox has, what they call, extensions. Extensions are small add-on features like plug-ins, which you can quickly install from the Mozilla Firefox web site. They are not to be confused with plug-ins, which work in Firefox like they do in other browsers, and allow you to view and interact with different kinds of media on the Internet, like Flash, Quick Time, and Real Audio.

Extensions add even more power and customizable functionality to Firefox. Currently, there are nearly 200 extensions available for installation. The extensions range from fun trinkets like games and calendars to add-ons that can change the behavior of the program to meet your every need. All extensions are extremely easy to install. All you need to do is find the extension you would like to add to Firefox, click the download or install now link, click ok to the prompt that comes up making sure you want to install the extension, and you are done. Firefox handles the download and install in the background instantly. Quite often you don't even need to restart the browser for the extension to be usable.

Fully Customizable Search Bar

With IE if you want to do a search for something you have to type in the name of your favorite search engine in the URL field and wait for the page to load, then do your search. If you like, yahoo provides an add-on, which will add a bar at the top of your IE window with Yahoo related items and a google search. But once again you have to find and download this program, and it is yet another program taking up precious computer memory. With Firefox, the search field is an embedded feature.

At the top of the Firefox window you will find the URL field. And, just like any other browser, you can type the exact URL of the site you would like to visit and it will take you there. But, unlike others, if you type in a topic you would like to search for, Firefox will automatically do what's called an "I'm feeing lucky", Google search. For those of you unfamiliar with that search, if you go to www.google.com then type in a search topic, and instead of clicking the "Google Search" button you click the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button, it automatically loads the first page it finds based on the search topic.

As if that's not enough, just to the right of the URL field you will find a search box. If you type the topic of something you would like to search for, a Google search is done for you and displayed without ever having to visit the main Google page.

But, the fun doesn't stop there. The search bar is totally customizable. You can easily add any search engine that you like. So if you prefer to use Lycos, or AltaVista, you can add and use them with the search bar, instead of Google. Do you often visit, dictionary.com, Internet Movie Data Base (imdb.com), or a site to check your stock quotes? All of these, and hundreds more can be added to the Firefox search bar.

Themes

You can also change the appearance of Firefox through the use of themes. The Mozilla site provides 29 different themes or skins, which allow you to change the appearance of your browser. I'm currently using one called Pinball, which provides smaller more compact icons and provides a bit more space for the actual web page. You can find skins that give a wood grain appearance, metallic look, a kids oriented theme, and quite a few others. All are very easy to download and install, and you can keep as many as you want on your system and switch between them as your mood changes.

The list of features doesn't end there.

Firefox provides unparalleled security and privacy features, optimized downloading, Text Zooming, an Easy Transition system, and many other features that will make this the new browser of choice.

Still not sure this is the browser for you? Not ready to take the plunge? Well I'm not suggesting you uninstall IE just yet. After all this is a prerelease version. But, also don't forget Firefox is more stable and robust at version 0.9 than IE (currently version 6.x) has ever been! Hey, if you don't like it, Mozilla even provides a simple uninstall program.

Take a few minutes to download Firefox, so you can see for yourself.

http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/

Robert Bradeen has over 10 years of extensive experience in the IT field, providing services such as: Desktop Support, LAN/Network Administration, Network Engineering, Web Design, and Technical Writing.


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