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Mozilla Firefox Raises the Browser Bar : Page 3

Tabs and toolbar search top the list of must-have features in Firefox that put the catch-up ball finally back in Microsoft's court.




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The Search Feature
Over the past couple of years, Google has become the most-used search engine on the Web. Many people have installed Google's toolbar (many without knowing that Google gathers tracking information when you use it). Recognizing Google's popularity, Mozilla Firebird includes a Search bar as a standard part of the browser toolbar (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Go Google: The Search bar implements fast Google searching. Just enter a term and press Enter.

By default the search feature searches Google. As delivered though, you can also search dmoz.org, or the text in the current browser page by selecting a search location from the search bar's context menu; however you can customize the Search bar to search using any site you prefer. The most convenient part is that you can use the search feature without browsing to the search site or managing an extra open browser window.

The search feature complements the tab page. Using IE, it's very easy to "lose" the results of your search by browsing too far from the search results page, or by accidentally closing the browser window. With Mozilla Firebird, searching displays the results in the current browser tab. Even if you browse too far away or accidentally close the browser window, you can get the search result back again immediately, by simply reselecting that search from the search term history list.

Keystroke Compatibility
I didn't put this in the list at the top of this review because it doesn't exactly qualify as one of the four must-have features, but it's worth mentioning anyway. One of the best ways to get people to switch from an entrenched application to a competing application is to make the target version as compatible with the entrenched version as possible. For example, mimicking the entrenched version's keyboard shortcuts will minimize the pain or irritation in switching. Word processor manufacturers learned that lesson many years ago. Someone at the Mozilla project has taken it to heart and implemented it so well that keyboard shortcuts in Mozilla Firebird are nearly identical to those in IE. As you can see from this keyboard shortcut comparison chart, Firebird is slightly better than at least one of its competitors at duplicating the IE shortcuts.

I've saved this until last because the act of customizing the browser is still a manual process; it's not (yet) simplistic enough (read: Wizard-driven) for most users. But the point to take away is that you can customize almost anything about Mozilla Firebird. That's because the user interface—unlike probably any other application you're using today—is driven entirely by external configuration files, called chrome. You can customize the entire user interface—every button, toolbar, drawing surface, font, menu, and status bar—everything, by modifying chrome files. The extensive ability to customize the browser has already led to a large number of add-ons, called extensions, that offer a broad range of added functionality.

Mozilla Firebird isn't quite ready for prime time. It needs an installer (the current installer, although it works nicely, is not officially part of the Mozilla project), and it needs more robust and user-friendly customization methods. The average computer user doesn't want to edit text files to make configuration changes.

Finally, Mozilla must be able to run everything that IE runs—including ActiveX controls, non-standard script, and HTML. Web purists will argue that ActiveX controls are insecure, and they are. They'll argue that the only script Mozilla Firebird doesn't run is non-standard; it is. They'll argue that the HTML rendering used by Mozilla is better than IE's because it adheres more closely to the standards agreed to by the W3C; that's true, too.

However, the fact is that any browser that pretends to have a prayer of competing with IE must compete with it all the time. Challengers don't get to set the rules of engagement. Browser users won't tolerate a browser that runs only some of the Web pages they want to see. More importantly, many Web developers won't target a new browser that won't run their existing code.

Despite these small problems, Mozilla Firebird—even in a .06 release—already outshines IE in several respects. Firebird raises the browser bar, and Microsoft will have to respond quickly to maintain IE's market share.

A. Russell Jones is the Executive Editor of DevX. Reach him by e-mail .
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