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Mozilla Firefox

Browsing the web is fun again

There are undoubtedly a thousand articles around touting the benefits of Mozilla Firefox. Whether that's true or not, I am going to add to the heap that's already out there. I could proffer myriad reasons why I decided to add my input, but I will simply say this: I am so enamoured of this software, I wanted to extoll its virtues and put my own spin on it.

History of the Browser, Part I

I used to be a devout Internet Explorer fan. It was not always that way, though. Back in the days of the browser wars I was a Netscape devotee, but plain and simple, Microsoft developed a better browser. Internet Explorer 4.0 was crap, but that is likely due to the fact that it was a huge beta. Beta or not, it laid the framework for Internet Explorer's version 5, which refined all of the things about version 4 that needed fixing. Internet Explorer 5 was truly a Netscape killer. Netscape never caught up after that. Add to this the fact that Microsoft could distribute their browser everywhere because of their market dominance and there was no hope for Netscape. People do not usually go out of their way to alter things and IE was convenient. It still is, but things have changed.

History of the Browser, Part II

Netscape, the once great startup with that scared the shit out of Microsoft, faded. Grand plans were made to re-work the entire browser and get away from the bloated mess that Netscape had become. Those lofty goals hit many snags, delays, and the visionary software developers left the project in disgust when America Online took over. AOL screwed up the Mozilla project for a while and then finally cut the reins...and now, after several years, Internet Explorer has met its match. Microsoft has all but abandoned innovating Internet Explorer now that their goal of integration into Windows has been achieved. There is simply no compelling reason for them to continue to innovate in that area. Or so they think.

Why Firefox is a Better Browser

Security Blanket

Perhaps the most important reason to consider abandoning Internet Explorer is the issue of security. For several reasons, using Internet Explorer opens up your computer to malicious software (ad/mal/spyware) and worse. Perhaps someday the same will happen to Firefox, but the key difference is support: the software geeks that wrote Firefox are interested in plugging holes in it.

Then there is the matter of ActiveX. ActiveX was designed by Microsoft to allow hooks into the operating system (Windows), ostensibly to make life better. The real reason is because it allowed Microsoft to blur the lines between Windows and the Web. There was once a distinct difference between your web browser and Windows. They are now one and the same thing. You browse your computer just like you browse the web, whether you know it or not. Firefox (and its cousins, Mozilla and Netscape 6+) are distinct and separate.

Why is this a good thing? Here is one simple example: a security exploit in Internet Explorer affects every program on your computer that uses that part of Internet Explorer. For corporate users, that usually means that Outlook has a problem too, and who knows what other programs. Surf the web with IE and break it, and you've broken a lot of other things too.

Tabbed Browsing

You've probably heard of this. The benefits of tabbed browsing are hard to impress upon people until you actually experience it. With tabs, your browser is open only once. You don't have five, ten or fifteen windows open that all look the same. Think of it this way: do you keep your socks in different drawers based on color or style? The answer is likely no, so why should you separate all of your internet experiences?

Tabs also offer more than consolidating. Say you are reading something on the web and you cross an interesting link. You can click on that link with a middle mouse button (or wheel), and a tab loads in the background. You can finish what you are reading and then move on to that interesting link when you are done looking at the current page. You can view references in a new tab without losing your place in the current page. Searching for information works in much the same way. Drag your mouse across a phrase in the browser, right-click with the mouse, and you can search with Google on that phrase - a new tab opens in the background and you don't lose your place.

So what is it that tabs do? They make your browsing experience better and they do it in ways that are different for everyone. There is a reason that tabbed browsing is all the rage these days. Once you start using tabs, you will not want to go back to the "old" way.

Lions and Tigers and Pop-ups Oh My!

If you have gotten on the Internet and not seen a pop-up or pop-under advertisement, then you have not done anything but look at a blank page. These annoying critters are everywhere, some worse than others. I cannot think of a single person that likes pop-up ads. They are too in-your-face and intrusive. Firefox suppresses these and you will forget in time that they even exist. Better still, the way Firefox handles this is very intelligent. If you visit a website that makes legitimate use of pop-up windows (web-based email, for example), Firefox can usually tell. If it does not allow it, you can click in the bottom left corner of the browser and tell it to allow the window one time, or all the time for this website. Simple stuff. Internet Explorer is going to offer this soon, but who knows how well it will work - and why did it take so long?

Lickety Split is Standard

Firefox renders web pages really, really fast. This may escape unnoticed for a while, but after you use Firefox and switch back to Internet Explorer, you will wonder what's taking so long. Not only that, but Firefox sticks with standards - sometimes a little too well, since most web developers have gotten sloppy. Internet Explorer does standards too, but it sticks with Microsoft's standards. Not everyone plays by Microsoft's rules and it's highly unlikely that a day will come when everyone does. Firefox shows you the money (so to speak) and it does it fast.

As a developer of websites, I test in Firefox first. If something looks correct in Firefox, it's almost guaranteed to look the same in Internet Explorer. Turning this around, if you view a website in Internet Explorer and then view the same content in Firefox, the sloppiness of design shows up right away. Although Firefox and alternate browsers make up a small portion of the web audience, ignoring those users is just not a nice thing to do.


I personally don't get much out of this feature, but a lot of people like it. Firefox has a lot of custom themes that you can download and use to change the appearance of the browser. The main reason I don't use themes is because I customize my toolbar to show only the text menu and the address bar, so I don't get the benefit of snazzy looking buttons and altered appearances. If you leave the standard toolbars alone though, these themes can really personalize Firefox and make it look exactly the way you want it to in addition to working so well.

Extended Play

Firefox works very well out of the "box" - but some folks may find themselves wishing it did "this" or "that." Thankfully, the answer you seek is probably already out there. The designers of Firefox gave it a powerful feature: extensions.

Extensions can do nearly anything. In fact, the first thing new Firefox users should do is to check out what extensions are available. There is an extension for just about any desire you have. Want to play Tetris in your browser? It's out there. Want to look at Amazon's catalog with a clean, easy to use browser? It's out there. Web developers will love things like Checky and EditCSS, which allow you to design web pages and check them on the fly. Even tabs can be made more powerful and useful with extensions. To get you started, I am providing a list of my favorite extensions and what/why/when/where/how.

Favorite Extensions
  • TabBrowser Extensions
    This is a most useful extension to the browser. With it, you can make tabs operate as groups, set a group of tabs as your home page(s), and more. Every conceivable aspect of tabs can be controlled with this powerful addition to Firefox. Want to have a tab automatically reload? No problem. Color code tabs when you are researching something? Pick a color. Definitely check this one out! I would even go so far as to say this should be "standard equipment" in the browser, with one reservation.

    The problem with this extension is that if you set it to force new windows to open only when you want them to, it will open pop-ups in a new tab, defeating one of the best features of Firefox. If you leave this alone, the extension works quite nicely. I hope to see this bug fixed in a later revision of the extension.
  • AdBlock
    This too, should be standard in the browser - for me, it is. Although Firefox manages pop-up ads with aplomb, you are still going to be beset with annoying ad banners, flashing graphics, and Flash ads. Yuck, yuck, yuck. Install this extension and kiss them all goodbye. It's amazing how clean a web page looks when you tank all of the flashing crap offering to optimize your internet connection or make you rich instantly. Once installed, all you have to do is right-click on an ad, choose AdBlock from the menu, and click OK - and it's gone.
  • IEView
    Small and simple, and very handy. Not all web designers care about the fact that not everyone uses Internet Explorer. Could be laziness - and probably is. For the small number of websites that just do not look right or behave as they should in Firefox, this extension comes to the rescue. Just right-click on the page you are viewing and select "View this page in IE" to launch the page in Internet Explorer. I rarely use this extension as I typically will not go back to a website that will not work in Firefox, but I will also not live without it. Many financial institutions and corporate websites use ActiveX controls that do not work in other browsers. IEView will get you access, but I also recommend writing them and voicing your displeasure. The web should be free of Microsoft's control, you should be free to choose what browser you use.
For web developers:
  • Checky
    Checky is a great tool if you design/develop websites. It contains a lot of tools that webmasters will appreciate, such as the W3C Markup validation service, CSS tools, and it also handles PHP and other scripting languages.
  • EditCSS
    EditCSS is amazing for cascading style sheets. It adds a sidebar in Firefox that can display a current page's style sheet, and any changes you make are dynamically applied. You can also use it to apply your own style sheets to any page. It is particularly useful for debugging CSS that makes a page look "not quite right."


All in all, Firefox has something to offer nearly everyone. Web developers can appreciate its extensibility, as well as the average surfer. The popup blocking and lack of malware that targets the browser are great. I have no intention of going back to the Internet Explorer world anytime soon. This includes items like AvantBrowser and MyIE2 that add Firefox-like capabilities to Internet Explorer, because even if those features are present it's still based on the horribly insecure Internet Explorer engine. Give Firefox a whirl, and you may wonder how you ever got along without it.

It's that good.


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