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All About Firefox

You might have heard about a "new" web browser out there called Mozilla Firefox (or just "Firefox" for short). It's the new Wünderkind of the "alternative browser" market. You see, most people - around 85 - 90% of you folks out there - use Microsoft's Internet Explorer to browse the web. But the remaining 10% use something else. There are a few programs out there - Maxthon for one - that use IE's "guts" but have different "front ends" than Internet Explorer. In fact, Maxthon can be be made to look nothing like Internet Explorer, although the inside is all running IE. On the other side of the spectrum, you've got different browsers altogether. The Opera web browser has been around for years, but never became all that popular. Firefox is an open-source project that uses code that is based on the old Netscape browser. But don't mistake comparing "Netscape" to "Netscape 4.7" (a truly awful suite of web software). The Firefox code has been given a good scrubbing by many programmers and has much, much to offer. And while most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about which web browser they use, perhaps they ought to. Spyware, adware and malware are out there, and it's possible to accidentally install some pretty nasty software on your system if you're not careful. But even more than security issues, a different browser offers a different experience using the web.

It's more secure than Internet Explorer - Firefox does not use Microsoft's ActiveX "plug-in" technology. "Plug-ins" are a method all web browsers use to install needed software on your computer when visiting a particular website. Normally this isn't a bad thing; in fact, it's required to take advantage of a lot of the advanced websites on the 'Net. For instance, Microsoft's Windows Update website uses a plug-in to update your computer. In fact, if you've ever gotten the prompt "Microsoft needs to install some new software to make Windows Update work" or "Your Windows Update software is out of date. Click OK to install a required update"... then you've installed a plug-in! Now, Microsoft being the company that it is, it created its own version of plug-ins called "ActiveX". This is a technology that allows website operators to install software on your system. But because the software is... how do I put this... full of holes, it's easy to cause mischief with ActiveX. Spyware and adware companies began to flourish, and new means of exploiting IE began to appear way too often. Partly this is Microsoft's fault for writing buggy code. To defend Microsoft though, "spyware" or "adware" didn't exist when most of the IE code was written, and Microsoft had a stunning vision of companies all across the world using Internet Explorer to access a company's internal web server (running Windows 2000 Server, of course) with legitimate ActiveX plug-ins creating cheap business applications. I have seen many, many companies do this. Instead of paying $20,000 (or more) for a help desk program, a company's IT department would be more than happy to use a cheap web server connected to a free MySQL database and using an in-house programmer to write an ActiveX control. That way, they don't have to install a "client" program on 5000 desktop machines. Anyone with Windows and Internet Explorer - be they sitting at the desk at the company headquarters or a salesman dialing-in from the Crown Room at Hartsfield Airport - would be able to access the company's help desk or sales lead system or be able to take care of basic HR needs with just a web browser.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, it didn't take long for virus writers and spyware companies to figure out what a goldmine this was. Over 95% of the people that surfed the 'Net at that time used some flavor of Internet Explorer. IE is a huge target for hackers and advertising people of similar ilk. Because Firefox doesn't use ActiveX, this means that many of the spyware and virus exploits on the 'Net will not affect you in Firefox. But another (very real) part of Firefox's security comes from the old "security through obscurity" IT maxim. Far more people use IE than Firefox, so virus and spyware writers have spent most of their time in the past few years writing software that exploits IE. As the numbers of Firefox users grow, more and more exploits for Firefox will appear as well. In a very real sense, it's similar to the old "Linux is more secure" argument. A few years ago, Linux was considered "secure" in part because few people - if any - wrote viruses or trojans for it. However, as more and more people began to use Linux, the number of Linux exploits increased... in fact, there have been more exploits for Linux the past couple of years than Windows! And to be fair to Microsoft, they have a much better system for delivering patches than Firefox (whose programmers are still working very hard on an "automatic update" feature). Also, the default Internet Explorer settings in Service Pack 2 for Windows XP are pretty decent. But still, you're much safer "out of the box" with Firefox than you are with Internet Explorer.

Firefox uses tabs! - If you want to have more than one web page open at a time, IE will use multiple windows. Firefox uses a single window with multiple tabs, so each page stays in one handy window. If you visit Internet message boards often, you'll love being able to hold down the CTRL key and click on a bunch of thread links and have them open in a new tab automagically. Tabbed browsing has been a feature with some browsers (like Opera) for ages, but I never really got into it until I started using Firefox a few months ago. I promise that if you try tabbed browsing for just one week, you'll never go back to IE's "multiple window" browsing again. Tabbing is something that just fits web browsing naturally.

Tabs + Bookmarks are Cool! - One cool thing about using tabs is that Firefox allows you to save all of the currently open tabs to your bookmarks as a group. Just select one of the currently open pages and select Bookmarks > Bookmark this page > Bookmark all tabs in a folder. You'll then have a folder in your bookmarks named after the page that was active when you selected "Bookmark this page". To open the pages individually, just click on their bookmarks like normal. To open all of the bookmarks as tabs in a single window, select "Open in tabs". Unfortunately, Firefox's Bookmarks Manager is about as bad as Internet Explorer's and with Firefox you don't have the option of moving your bookmarks around using Windows Explorer either.

It's small... and has cool features! - Firefox is only around 4.5MB, so downloading it is super-quick, even on dial-up. By itself, the Firefox browser is a compact, limber little thing that's perfect for computer lab or office desktop computers. But that small download does pack a punch! Firefox comes with a built-in Google toolbar - which can also search Yahoo!, Dictionary.com, Amazon and eBay too - as well as a built-in pop-up blocker. Firefox also has a "Live Bookmarks" feature that allows you to bookmark RSS feeds and blogs and view them as web pages within Firefox. I'm not a huge fan of the "RSS feed as a webpage" paradigm, but, like IE's FTP client, it'll work in a pinch.

It's easy to setup! - Firefox is dead-simple to install. When you run it for the first time it gives you the option of importing all of your Internet Explorer bookmarks, cookies and history, so the transition is as close to painless as possible. All of your data is kept in a "profile" which is not touched after an uninstall or upgrade. Upgrades affect actual Firefox program files only, so troubleshooting on a company level would be much easier IMHO.

It has themes! - Firefox's interface is fully customizable. You can tweak it to your heart's content by downloading themes. The default Firefox theme is OK, but there are many more snazzy ones out there. Like this site for instance.There's even a skin that will make Firefox look like Internet Explorer (see the picture below), which could come in handy for company-wide upgrades or for those who just "refuse to switch".

It has extensions! - Although Firefox ships with lots of features, it also has a extensible plug-in capability. These plug-ins - called extensions - should not be confused with the "plug-ins" mentioned in my anti-MS rant at the top of the page. Extensions are completely voluntary and optional to install - indeed, you'd gotta go to a website and download them yourself - but they won't install any spyware, I promise! They add additional features to Firefox or fix some of its eccentricities. Here's a list of the extensions I'm currently using, just to get an idea of what these extensions can do. Click on any of the links below to go to a website where you can learn more about them... or install them on your computer if you're already running Firefox!     

Adblock - Firefox has a built-in pop-up blocker, but it's becoming less and less useful as more and more people use the browser and more and more websites write code to get around Firefox's blocker. Adblock not only stops pop-ups, it can actually remove banner ads and other types of advertising from web pages! One feature I wish Adblock had would be the ability to allow advertising from certain specified websites. Blocking ads at Ars Technica is frowned upon by the mods there, so I have to remember to turn Adblock off manually when I visit Ars.

Allow Right-Click - Some websites disable right-clicking on their web pages in a lame attempt to prevent people from stealing images or written content from their site. For example, awfulplasticsurgery.com does this. This extension disables the JavaScript that causes this.

Bandwidth Tester - As the name implies, this adds a internet speed test to Firefox's "Tools" menu. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But it's still nice to have.

Bookmark Backup - Backs up your bookmarks to a different drive or server every time you close Firefox. An awesome "set it and forget" extension for those of us too lazy to do backups manually.

ChromEdit - For the advanced class only. It allows the user to easily modify arcane user settings in Firefox's userChrome.css, user.js, etc. files. If you don't know what I'm talking about, skip this. If you do know what I'm talking about, this extension allows you to tweak Firefox's internal settings by clicking on Tools > Edit User Files instead of navigating 15 levels deep in Windows Explorer and opening the file(s) with Notepad.  

Clone Window - When you click File > New Tab in Firefox, the new tab will appear as a blank web page. This is a mighty annoyance to Internet Explorer users who are used to new windows being opened as "clones" of the current page. This extension forces Firefox to open new tabs as clones of the current active tab. This comes in handy in lots of ways. If you're surfing Amazon in a single window or tab for a particular type of product (like an clock radio), when you find a clock you want to come back to, you can just click File > New Tab (or press CTRL+T) to clone the current window, instead of going back to the previous page and opening the selected link in a new tab.

Download Manager Tweak - Firefox has a download manager, which is something that is sorely lacking in Internet Explorer. However, the default behavior of Firefox's manager is kind of annoying - it appears with every download as a small window, not unlike your average pop-up ad. Download manager allows you to tweak how it behaves. You can make the manager appear in a separate window, the sidebar or - my personal fave - as a regular tabbed window. You can make it close automatically when downloads complete. You can trick it out any way you'd like.

downTHEMall! - How many times have you been to a celebrity fansite and wanted to download every picture of Angelina Jolie they offered, but didn't want to open and save each picture individually? If you're like me, it's actually pretty often. downTHEMall adds an option to Firefox's context menu so that you can download every picture on a page - or every picture linked from the current page - with two mouse clicks. It even comes with a "turbo" option that retains the last settings you used so that you only need to right-click on the page and select "turbo d-T-a" to download all the pictures to the same folder on your local system.

FirefoxView - Adds an option to Internet Explorer to view the current IE page in Firefox. Just right-click a whitespace on the IE page and select "View page in Firefox" to have Firefox open to the current page. 

ForecastFox - My favorite extension! Adds your local forecast to Firefox's status bar. ForecastFox - which is made by a guy from Ars Technica - is highly configurable, allowing you to display several day's worth of forecasts, just daytime forecasts, just nighttime forecasts, use icons or text to display the same, to have (or not have) "pop-up" notifications appear in Firefox... and much more! ForecastFox pulls its data from weather.com, so if you're happy with your local forecast from those folks, it's easy have it in Firefox!

FoxyTunes - This is a remote control program for your media player. You can select the specific media player that you use - be it iTunes, WinAMP, Windows Media Player, RealPlayer, Music Match, what have you - and control the program within Firefox using a tiny toolbar in a location you choose. 

ieview - Does the same thing as FirefoxView, only in reverse. Just right-click a whitespace on the Firefox page and select "View page in IE" to have Internet Explorer open to the current Firefox page. This comes in handy for those few sites - like online banking sites - that absolutely require Internet Explorer.  

ListZilla - Exports a list of your currently installed extensions and themes to an HTML, plain text or vB code file, as well as links to the websites and the currently install extension's version number. In fact, ListZilla is how I made this list! Good for posting on Internet message boards or for re-installs.

Session Saver - Saves all of your currently open pages to a "session" when you close Firefox, or manually by clicking on File > Store Session. This is nice for those times when you have to reboot unexpectedly or if you have 20 tabs open and need to restart Firefox to install a new extension or theme. Just reboot or restart Firefox and click File > Restore Session and you're back where you were. The default settings - to create a session every time you close Firefox and to restore it every time you open Firefox are a bit much. It's not that difficult to do this manually whenever I need to use it.

Tweak Network - As the name implies, this extension allows you to tweak Firefox's network settings to allow for faster performance in certain situations. It's kind of pointless if you're good at tweaking the user.js file, but it's handy for those people that aren't.


(Click the thumbnail to see a typical Firefox window)


As I mentioned earlier, if you like the look and feel of IE but want the security of Firefox, check out a site called FirefoxIE, which gives you complete instructions on how to make Firefox look and act almost exactly like Internet Explorer. Aside from the obvious FirefoxIE theme, the site offers a complete method of changing many of the internal features (like the way pictures are rendered on a page) to look like Internet Explorer. This might also be a good site for IT people to check out, as converting a company from IE to Firefox using FirefoxIE's method should result in less confusion and support calls after than transition. Given the fairly large amount of work it takes to do this on just one computer might make you want to roll it out via an image upgrade than a per-machine install.

Seriously though... do check out Firefox! If you use it for just one week, I promise that you'll never go back to Internet Explorer!

Last Updated: Monday, 04 June 2007 14:04