Rediscover the Web with Firefox

by Mike Cooper
from the December 2004 Newsletter

Latest survey figures indicate that most people using the web (over 92% world-wide) use Internet Explorer for their surfing (also known as web-browsing). It's not surprising that Internet Explorer is the incumbent heavy-weight amongst browsers. It comes bundled with Windows so it's all ready to go. All users have to do is click the little blue e at the bottom left of their screens. Most don't even consider the possibility of using an alternative, but they are out there.

Downloading an alternative browser won't harm your PC and you don't have to uninstall Internet Explorer first. They can exist side by side. In fact, you can even have them open and working at the same time while you're online.

Why would you want an alternative browser?

Some people assert that there are a number of good reasons. The first revolves around security. Because Internet Explorer is so bound up and intertwined with the Windows operating system itself, any security holes it has can tend to open your whole system up. Also, because Internet Explorer is so popular, and its weaknesses so well-known, most hackers concentrate on it and don't bother too much with the alternatives that have, as yet, a small percentage of market share.

Other issues involve functionality, simplicity and speed. Good alternative browsers include Opera, Mozilla and Firefox. This article touches on a number of the issues mentioned above in regard to Firefox, my own personal browser of choice..

Originally nicknamed Phoenix, this new browser is “rising from the ashes” courtesy of the Mozilla Foundation, and is based on the flagship Mozilla browser.

Firefox is Out!

Firefox v 1.0 has been officially released this month. It is a completely free, community developed alternative to Internet Explorer. Firefox has been in popular use by Actrix staff, and indeed many Internet users during its development, and is proving extremely popular. Visitors to the Actrix web-site using Mozilla based browsers have more than doubled in the last 12 months.

Firefox puts web browsing in a refreshingly different light. It sports a number of advanced features including built-in pop-up blocking, search as you type, a built in Google search service and the ability to browse in tabs – one program for all your web sites. Tabbed browsing is such a convenience that you will wonder how you ever put up with not having it.

The Firefox Browser: Note the three tabs in use (Actrix, Actrix Newsletters, Google).

If you have a middle-button on your mouse, clicking a link with this pops the link open in a new tab – great when looking through search results or browsing news sites. Firefox is also fast. Its small footprint and custom rendering engine display web sites quickly without chewing up resources on your machine the way that Internet Explorer tends to do. Of course all the standard features are still there such as Bookmarks, History etc.  

Firefox also has a variety of extensions (or plug-ins) which can provide a host of other features to add to the browsing experience – far too many to explore here! If you'd like to learn more, have a read of the Firefox web site: http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/. You can read more about Firefox's rising popularity in the news article in this month's news snippet's (under Mainly Microsoft) - Microsoft browser market share slips slightly.

Security is a prominent issue on today's Internet, and Firefox is a big step up in this department. As an independent program, Firefox isn't "blended in" with your Windows operating system. This greatly reduces its potential as a doorway into your PC's inner sanctum that may let your computer become compromised as a spam relay or a remote controlled virus distributor. A team of community developers are on the watch for any security flaws, and these are amended often within hours of being discovered (Firefox comes with a built in update utility).

The only point of note is that Firefox may not display some sites the way they were intended. The net is strongly focused on Internet Explorer, so the odd site or two may use IE specific code which might make them look a little odd in other browsers. Incidentally, this is another good reason why some say that, on principle, we should throw our support behind programs like Firefox. Alternative browsers tend to base the way they interpret the HTML code behind web pages on internationally developed and approved standards. That's why they are sometimes referred to as "standards-based browsers." Internet Explorer prefers to do things its own way, sometimes without regard to internationally accepted standards. This is frustrating for a lot of designers who code their web pages correctly, and find that 92% of people visiting their sites don't see them the way they were intended.

The end result of this is that most designers, despite the fact that they value internationally developed standards, end up designing for Internet Explorer, purely for pragmatic reasons, and the standards-based browsers, such as Firefox, end up having to struggle occasionally.

How important this is to individuals will vary, but to get back to the point, Firefox users will not usually notice anything different. Oddly displaying pages will be very much the exception, rather than the rule.

A sister project to Firefox is also underway, known as ThunderBird. ThunderBird is an e-mail client that could be used as an alternative to Outlook or Outlook Express for much the same reasons as one might consider using an alternative browser. We might have a look at ThunderBird in a later newsletter.

The Firefox browser has come ahead in leaps and bounds over the last few months, and this official release provides an extremely viable and secure alternative for web-surfers everywhere. Firefox is available for Windows, Mac OS and Linux from www.mozilla.org/firefox.

Windows users can grab a copy directly from Actrix: http://files.actrix.co.nz/show.php?id=16