Mozilla Firefox 2.0
Eric Moore, CUGG
January 13, 2007
Although Internet Explorer (IE) still reigns as the de facto
standard for web browsers on Windows computers, a number of others are
competing with IE in the arena of features, security, and
user-friendliness. Amongst the competing products is the open
source web browser Firefox, maintained by the Mozilla Foundation
(http://www.mozilla.org/). Although it has been promoted as a
better alternative to IE, particularly in regards to security, I
principally use it for a number of features that are unique to or
uniquely implemented by Firefox 2.0. Although some of these
features such as tabbed browsing and searching for text within a web
page are available in Internet Explorer 7.0 (IE 7), they are
implemented in ways that make my web browsing much easier than if I
were to use IE 7.
I will discuss some of the features and point out how they differ from what’s available in IE. If you are interested in trying Firefox 2.0 for yourself, you may freely download it at http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/. I have used Firefox for about three years and have never encountered a problem installing or using it, nor has it ever interfered with my ability to use IE for those websites that cannot be viewed with Firefox.
Tabbed browsing is an innovation that has been available in earlier versions of Firefox as well as other web browsers such as Netscape Navigator, Opera, and Safari. Microsoft has been behind the times in regards to this feature, as tabbed browsing has only now become a standard feature with the recent release of IE 7.
Tabbed browsing allows the user to download and view several web pages within the same window. When using older browsers such as IE 6.0, the user must open a different browser window for each simultaneously downloaded web page. This has the effect of cluttering the Windows taskbar and desktop, making the user work harder when switching between web pages.
I use tabbed browsing regularly, especially when reading news and technical articles. If in the midst of reading an article I encounter a link to another web page with additional relevant information, I can click the link with the middle mouse button to begin downloading the page. The page downloads in the background in a new tab while I can continue to read the original article without interruption. This not only eliminates my need to go back later and try to find the links that interested me, it also means that the next topic of information is already downloaded and ready for me when I finish the original article.
I have discovered much to my pleasure recently that if I have several tabs open and Windows suddenly locks up for some inexplicable reason, I can force my computer to shut down, restart it, and then reopen Firefox to pick up where I left off. Firefox detects that my previous session was interrupted and will give me the option to reopen the tabs that I had opened prior to the system shutdown. This has saved me much time and trouble on more than one occasion.
Firefox 2.0 introduced a new feature that has confirmed all the more my reasons for using Firefox rather than IE. I am a stickler for proper spelling, so I always make sure I’ve not made any spelling errors prior to sending web e-mail or submitting an online support request. Prior to the release of Firefox 2.0, I would copy the message I had typed and paste it into Microsoft Word or some other program that has a spell checker. This was inefficient as it required me to switch between two different programs to perform a simple task in Firefox. (Spellchecking is available for IE 7 as a third-party add-on available at http://www.ieaddons.com.)
Now that spellchecking is integrated into Firefox, I can see as I type whether I have misspelled a word. Any word that is not recognized by Firefox is underlined in red. I can right-click the (allegedly) misspelled word and select from a list of suggested corrections, or select an option to add the word to a personalized dictionary so Firefox will recognize it again in the future.
The user is not limited to the default features of Firefox. The user may customize the program in a number of ways with themes, extensions, and plugins. Information and available downloads may be found at https://addons.mozilla.org/. (Do note that the add-ons are created by third parties, so be careful as some could be buggy and unstable or render Firefox insecure.)
A variety of themes are available, allowing the user to change the appearance of Firefox. For example, different button icons and color schemes are available. Some icons are more artistic than the default ones while others are more colorful or easier to see. The available themes are inspired by animals, sports teams, nature, and other topics.
Software extensions add to the existing functionality of Firefox. The available extensions include dictionaries, privacy and security controls, stock tickers, calendars, and downloading tools.
Plugins seamlessly add new functionality for handling special multimedia and graphic formats. Plugins are currently available for Acrobat Reader, Flash Player, Java, QuickTime, RealPlayer, Shockwave Player, and Windows Media Player.
The toolbar for Firefox includes a search bar that allows for quick and easy searching with my favorite search engine. I can type in the word, name, or phrase I am interested in and then click the magnifying glass to find the relevant information. I use Google (the default site) but I could select from other options such as Yahoo, Answers.com, Amazon.com, and eBay. I could also add to the list of available search engines at https://addons.mozilla.org/.
Searching Within a Page
Once I find the web page I am interested in, I can narrow my search further by searching within the page for a particular word or phrase. I use this feature to quickly jump to what I need, especially if the page is poorly laid out or contains too much text to skim over.
Searching within a web page is as simple as selecting Find in This Page from the Edit menu, or by using the hotkey CTRL+F. When I do this, a search bar will appear at the bottom of the Firefox window. I may enter the text I am searching for and then click Next. Each time I click Next, Firefox will highlight the next instance of the text in the web page. I can also search for the previous instance by clicking Previous. If the text is not found within the web page, the text field will turn red.
One reason I really like this feature is that Firefox will automatically return to the top of the page if I click Next after finding the last occurrence of the text (or Firefox will return to the bottom of the page if I click Previous after finding the first occurrence). Internet Explorer can search within a page as well, but after it finds the last instance, it will stop rather than automatically returning full circle to the top of the page. When this happens, I must manually select the option to reverse the direction of the search. This is one particular (albeit minor) feature that I do not like about IE.
Cookies can be used by unscrupulous companies and persons to track the user’s web surfing, such as noting which pages are visited and the products or services the user searches for. Given the potential for “spying” on a user’s web browsing habits, cookies may be managed in a number of ways by Firefox.
By default, all cookies are accepted and retained indefinitely. The user may elect to keep cookies until they expire or until Firefox is closed. The user may also configure Firefox to ask every time whether a cookie should be accepted or to refuse all cookies. Since many sites will not work properly if cookies are not accepted, I usually configure Firefox to retain cookies until I close the program. This way I can visit the websites I need and then exit Firefox, knowing my surfing habits have been cleared.
As with many Windows applications, the Firefox toolbar is customizable. The user may add buttons for commonly used functions such as opening a tab, pasting text, viewing the browser history, and managing bookmarks. The toolbar buttons may be arranged in whatever order the user prefers along with spacers and separators to visually separate groups of buttons. For the sake of convenience, I prefer to add buttons for opening a new tab and for opening a new Firefox window.
Pop-up Blocking and Other Content Controls
Firefox has an integrated pop-up blocker which the user may configure to block all pop-ups (with exceptions for trusted sites) or never block pop-ups. This is a useful feature for the user who does not wish to be bombarded with advertisements for products and services, fake warnings of possible spyware or virus infections, or other irrelevant information.
ActiveX controls, which provide similar functionality as Java applets, are not supported by Firefox at all. ActiveX controls have been used maliciously and surreptitiously to install worms and spyware. Unless the user relies heavily on ActiveX support for dynamic content on websites such as MSN Games and the Windows and Office updates at Microsoft, this lack of support for ActiveX can be a good thing.
Like any other program, Firefox is not perfect. New bugs and security weaknesses are being discovered in Firefox every year. In order that the user can easily keep abreast of updates, the user can configure Firefox to automatically check for new updates whenever an Internet connection is available. After an update is installed, the user is prompted to restart Firefox in order that the update becomes effective. Firefox can also check for updates for third-party plugins and add-ons.