Mozilla Firefox Raises the Browser Bar

or the past several years, browser development for Windows has been more or less stalled. Sure, there have been under-the-hood improvements; but the basic browsing feature set has remained nearly identical across browser versions since Microsoft released IE 4. That was when, if you remember, IE’s DHTML capabilities so completely eclipsed those available in Netscape’s browser that people flocked to IE in droves.

The loss of clientele and revenue drove Netscape to try an open-source model based on the “Gecko” layout engine, under the Mozilla project. Because the project could use very little of the code from the original Netscape browser (because it didn’t use Gecko), Mozilla had a long road to travel to build a product that would compete with IE. Progress has been slow but steady over the past few years. Last year’s Mozilla browser (the 1.2 version) was a little buggy, but clearly showed that Mozilla was rapidly catching up with IE.

Editor’s Note (Updated 10/4/04): Firebird was an early name for the browser released in October 2004 as Firefox. The headline has been updated to reflect the new name but in the rest of this article, all instances of Firebird should be replaced by Firefox.

Mozilla Catches Up
I recently tried out the newest build of the Mozilla Firebird browser, and I’m impressed. It’s fast, it’s easy to get running (unzip the download), it runs most Web pages?even those that were designed expressly for Internet Explorer (IE)?without complaints, errors, or much loss of functionality (in a few instances JavaScript that runs in IE does not run in Mozilla Firebird), and it has four features that make it a must-have download for everyone who uses the Web seriously:

  • It blocks popups
  • It implements an idea called “tabbed browsing”
  • It has a search feature that lets you get directly to Google
  • It’s far more customizable than IE

Popup Blocking
Although there are numerous popup-blocking add-ons for Internet Explorer, Mozilla has taken it one step further: popup-blocking capability is built into the browser (see Figure 1). It’s not an afterthought. If you have some sort of strange popup ad fetish or you visit sites that use popups for necessary functionality, you can turn the feature off (even for individual sites), but personally, I’m only sorry that the popup blocker doesn’t also make the person responsible for the popup ad turn into a toad or something equally unpleasant.

Popup blocking may not be a sufficiently persuasive reason to switch browsers, but tabbed browsing is a major advance.

  /assets/articlefigs/5871.gif
Figure 1. The Options Dialog: The Options dialog lets you turn popup-blocking on or off, and even lets you customize the feature for individual sites.

Tabbed Browsing
The need to run more than one application at a time led the single-program-only DOS world to adopt Windows. The need to switch between programs easily led to that familiar row of buttons on the Windows taskbar. In the same vein, users’ increasing need to have more than one browser window open and have an easy way to switch between them has sparked Mozilla’s tabbed browsing metaphor.

Using IE, if you want to keep your current browser instance where it is and browse to a different site in a new instance, you open another copy of the browser, which adds a button to your taskbar. That’s great, but repeat this several times and your taskbar quickly fills up with increasingly tiny buttons, all unhelpfully displaying the IE logo. If you want to see what’s in those windows later, you’re back to the Alt-TAB key to toggle among the open browsers.

  /assets/articlefigs/5872.gif
Figure 2. Tabbed Browsing: There are three open tabs in the tab area of this Mozilla Firebird browser instance.

Using Mozilla Firebird, however, you can open multiple browsers as tabbed windows within the single main browser window (see Figure 2). This is not only a convenient way of moving between browser instances but it does you the great service of cleaning up your Windows taskbar by moving those tiny browser buttons off the taskbar and into the tab area of the browser. The Firebird tab bar has a context menu that lets you delete, reload, and add tabs. You can open any URL in a new tab by holding the Ctrl key while clicking the link. You can create a new tab from any open page by dragging the URL onto the tab area. It’s hard to grasp the increased productivity inherent in this feature until you’ve tried it.

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).

  /assets/articlefigs/5882.gif
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.

Customization
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.

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