Bar Bulletin

August, 2004

TECHNOLOGY TALK

"Firefox: The New Browser on the Block"
By John Anderson

Microsoft’s decision to make the Internet Explorer Web browser part of its operating system starting with Windows 98 almost killed Netscape, the company that pioneered the Web browser and had the early market share lead. If it hadn’t been for America Online, Netscape would have gone the way of most other dot-coms.

This doesn’t mean that others can't compete in the Web browsing genre. If you want fresh and exciting signs of life, take a look at a free, simple and powerful Web browser called Firefox.

Every week more reports surface alerting us of the flaws in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer that could jeopardize our security. Pop-up windows that install programs on your machine to steal personal information or implant malicious code in legitimate websites that could, once again, steal your data.

Microsoft says it’s doing everything possible to eliminate these problems. As it has in the past, the company put out a fix that patches these particular problems. Microsoft has also said it will soon release a free upgrade to Windows that is more secure.

In the meantime, the U.S. government’s Computer Emergency Readiness Team (www.cert.org) published a warning that included, among other suggestions, the advice to “use a different browser” – suggesting that PC users look to sources other than Microsoft for a Web browser.

Fortunately, there are other sources. There are several alternative browsers including Opera (www.opera.com) and my favorite, Mozilla Firefox.

Firefox is a free browser from the Mozilla Foundation (www.mozilla.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting “open-source” software. Unlike Microsoft’s proprietary software, open-source programs can be analyzed and modified by any qualified programmer. They can also be “extended,” which means it’s possible for creative people to enhance Firefox and other Mozilla software by extensions or plug-ins that add functionality.

You’ll notice the difference from the moment you download Firefox. The Windows version installer is half the size of an upgrade for Internet Explorer — a little over 6 megabytes. If you’ve got a broadband connection, you’ll have it in a snap.

You’ll also find that it doesn’t try to make itself your default browser, nor make any other changes to your system. About the only annoying thing it does upon installation is insisting on putting icons on your desktop and the Windows quick-start bar without asking.

If you have the Netscape browser loaded on your system, the Firefox installer will pick up its settings, including your designated startup webpage. It won’t pick these up from Internet Explorer, but it will import your IE Favorites.

It also won’t grab any plug-ins — for example, the popular Flash animation player — that you’ve already installed for IE. You’ll have to download them again when you first visit Firefox sites that require them.

In addition to Firefox, Mozilla also offers an excellent free e-mail program called Thunderbird that challenges Microsoft Outlook, which, like other Microsoft programs, dominates the category.

Unlike Microsoft, the Mozilla Foundation is committed to fully supporting not just Windows but both the Linux and Macintosh OS X operating systems for all of its programs. There are typically nearly identical versions of Mozilla programs for all three operating systems, and extensions written for one operating system automatically work on the others.

Aside from the fact that it’s safer than Internet Explorer (it is possible for a virus or hacker to attack Firefox, but it’s less likely), it also has some features that you won’t find in Explorer. My favorite is tabbed browsing. With Explorer, you either replace the page you’re viewing with a totally different page, or you can open up a link in a new window, which basically opens another copy of Explorer. That’s okay, but if you open too many windows, things can quickly become confusing, making it difficult to navigate between windows.

With Firefox you also have the option of opening a new window, but the preferred procedure is to use tabs which appear at the top of the screen.

As I work right now, I have Google in one tab, Plime.com in another and our own homepage (www.msba.org) in a third. I can jump from page to page a lot faster and easier than if I were trying to navigate through Explorer’s windows.

Another great feature of Firefox is that it eliminates those annoying pop-up windows. There are programs you can add to Explorer that do this, but it’s nice to run a browser that just does it by default.

Firefox also boasts better bookmarks and history features. Firefox makes it easier to organize your Bookmark collection with its handy Bookmarks manager. Create folders to group similar items and add annotations to remind yourself of why you bookmarked a particular item later. You can sort on any of a number of properties, including Name, Location, Date Last Visited, etc. Firefox also lets you associate a Keyword with any bookmark so you can open it by simply typing its keyword in the Location Bar of the browser.

If you want to view a pop-up window, you have that option, but in most cases you’ll be glad you don’t have to.

One drawback of Firefox and other browsers not based on Microsoft Internet Explorer is that there are a few webpages that just won’t work. That’s because some pages insist on using Microsoft proprietary technology. One of those – not surprisingly – is Microsoft’s own Windows Update page (www.microsoft.com) that is used to update your Windows software.

Firefox is a bit of a work in progress. The current version (0.9.1) is still in its testing phase, though I find it to be very stable. Even in its test phase, it hasn’t crashed on me yet.

Give Firefox a try — you won’t be disappointed.

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