The magic of Firefox

Since PC’s were available at reasonable prices, users have mostly surfed websites with Internet Explorer. Every new PC is sold with a version of Microsoft Windows already installed, IE is their own browser. Many don’t know there are alternatives out there, where to get them or how to install and use them.

Until a few years ago most alternate browsers had a small but select user base. Mozilla have been making consistently better browsers than IE, yet only ever achieved around 2% of the user base.

Firefox has changed all of this, and has left Microsoft scratching their heads in despair as they try to combat it. Around 20% of European surfers now use Firefox. The US is slightly lower while the far east its much higher. This is growing every day. It’s a cancer Microsoft can’t deal with. Until Firefox Microsoft enjoyed around 96% of the market with the rest added together to make up the last 4%.

For any one browser to have swallowed 20% and rising of the market in such a short time it must be special. Microsoft are clinging on to around 78% of the market and hoping for a miracle that won’t come. A successful marketing campaign or a duping of the audience will only get you a small increase, and that will fade when it comes to light. What makes Firefox so significant is that the charge is being led by PC professionals the world over. Put simply it’s the professionals tool of choice, that secret is gradually being discovered by normal PC users.

Don’t be misled into thinking that IE will be useless in a couple of years, it won’t. They’ve had a huge market lead for far too long to go down so quick. Microsoft are also desperate to give newer versions of IE some of the features Firefox has, to tempt some back and prevent others from converting. This will no doubt work to some degree, along with those who don’t like change. IE7 is a vast improvement now that it has some serious competition to fight off. It’s far too little, far too late in my opinion, but it’s recognition of what effect Firefox is having on Microsoft. Even Bill Gates (Microsoft’s multi billionaire owner) surfs with Firefox.

If you’re curious what version of IE you have, here’s a rough guide. Windows XP comes with IE6, Windows 2000 comes with (I believe) IE5. The new Windows Vista (available next year….see “inside a Microsoft OS” for my opinions of this.) will have EI7. IE7 is now available as an update for Windows XP and will be included by default in the next scheduled update.

Complacency led Microsoft to keep giving an inferior product, why bother to change while there is no real threat after all?. Every knowledgeable PC person, forum and website is promoting Firefox yet there is no money in it for them. They all know the benefits of Firefox compared to IE from a technical perspective, they know how good it is. I include myself in this category.

First let me put my loyalties upfront, for around 2 years I’ve been a Mozilla Firefox user. I am also a Microsoft Certified Professional, I understand how Microsoft operate and chose the best products for the job, not by brand name. When I first started using Firefox it was on version 0.9; it has evolved gradually until it’s latest version 2.0 which I now have.

Over the years there have been changes in the way people use the internet, as well as how some abuse the internet. When the internet was in it’s infancy (domestic user wise) people have gotten used to new threats as they ebb and flow. They gradually find new ways to combat it, and protect surfers. This has led inevitably to the requirements of a more secure browser. It has been practically ignored by Microsoft in their evolution of IE even though it’s their browser the threat writers want surfers to visit with.

When the surfer arrives at a site or page a lot of things happen in the background to produce that page on the surfers PC. With IE the surfer has to accept whatever that is, regardless of the danger or inconvenience. Since Microsoft have a huge stake in people seeing their adverts, the last thing they want to stop on IE is adverts, the turkey does not vote for Christmas after all. If they did block adverts in IE and exploited the code to make sure theirs showed, they’d have a flood of lawsuits from companies claiming an unfair advantage to add to their current lawsuits for similar behavior.

As with any technology, when people get their heads round how to use it, they come up with new ways to use and abuse it. Where there’s money to be made (either ethically or unethically) some people will do so. Greed is a powerful motivator, and a prized attribute in the US.

So what’s special about Firefox then I hear you ask. The simple answer would be “try it and see for yourself why you didn’t try it sooner”. It’s not so clear cut. Let me dispel a few myths and answer some basic questions you may not think to ask. These are in no particular order, other than as they come to me.

  1. Installing another browser, Firefox or any other does not mean you lose IE. It means you have a choice of more than one browser, both of which want to be your default browser. I have several installed on my PC. As a web designer I need to make sure my sites and pages show as I expect on as many browsers as possible. As you may have guessed already, as a surfer my overwhelming preference is Firefox.

  2. All browsers are not equal. When you’re used to what IE offers and assume it’s the best on the market you are in for a huge eye opener as to what is possible, which will no doubt ask you to question why Microsoft have been living in the dark ages for so long.

  3. All pages and sites do not work on Firefox. This is true as of the time I’m writing this article, up to a point. I do come across the occasional page which Firefox can’t seem to render properly (the accounts page in Yahoo is the only example I can think of offhand). This is a once in a blue moon experience and is easily countered by adding an extension called either IE Tab, or IE View to Firefox but I’ll get onto extensions later. As Firefox continues it’s rampage on the IE user base more site developers know that making their sites Firefox compatible is good business sense.

  4. Mozilla Firefox is free. Free to download with no time limit, or cut off on certain functions. Free to use permanently. Any company trying to charge for it is trying to exploit your lack of knowledge.

  5. Mozilla Firefox is available from Mozilla for all operating systems, not just Microsoft. Mac and Linux users have a version for them. These versions may look slightly different but they are all Firefox and Microsoft needs far more protection than the others since it has little built in (thanks Microsoft).

  6. Just because Microsoft want you to surf their way, does not mean that you have to do so. How many sheep do you think have free thought? This may seem harsh and it probably is however Microsoft have so many restrictions on their programs all subtly nudging you to do things their way, and discourage any experimentation. This ethos goes against my grain.

Linux has a few built in browsers which are much better than IE and closer in technology to Firefox therefore the difference is less pronounced. This is explained by the fact that Mozilla have always been a part of the open source way of thinking that Linux is built on.

One of the main strengths of Firefox is that it’s fully customizable. In short it gives you a browser which lets the spirit of the PC live, instead of constricting it. After all, a PC stands for PERSONAL COMPUTER. By it’s nature people use their PC’s in different ways, for different reasons; they should be allowed and encouraged to customize it to their needs, and not be led down train lines as to what Microsoft decide they should use it for.

Both Firefox 2.0 and IE7 are two of the new “version 2” browsers, they are not the only two. These are significantly enhanced from the older gradual updates security wise. They have features surfers need as standard in answer to threats which have emerged such as anti-phishing technology. This means that answering a fake email from a bank and clicking through to a site that looks like your bank’s and being asked to input your user information it will flag as fake if it is fake. This scam is undetectable in older browsers without extra programs and rely on experienced users to recognize the email as spam and don’t take the bait.

I’ll end this blog with a run down of the privacy and security issues which affect all users, and mention the extensions Firefox uses to protect you. Maybe I’ll do another blog at a later date where I’ll do a complete step by step installation and set up guide to Firefox, and the extensions I mentioned if it’s wanted.

Firefox has millions of extensions do trick out your browser in any way you like (this list grows by the day); many of which have a small user base such as an Ebay tracker. The extensions I mention in this article are strongly advised for all surfers regardless of what they surf for. As before, these are in no particular order, just as they come to me. By default no extensions are installed with Firefox, you have to go get them yourself.

  1. AdBlock Plus and the AdBlock Filterset Updater. As pages load, the adverts on them load too. This extension knows which are adverts and blocks them by default. Everything on the page needs time to download before it can be seen, so why waste time downloading something you didn’t want to see while waiting for what you did want to see? It can get it wrong from time to time but you can over ride it’s decisions at any time.

  2. NoScripts. Websites are made up of both static and dynamic content. Static content is the same for every user, dynamic is dependent on the selections of the user.

When you search for something in Google, the site has to display it’s results in your browser. This is dynamic content as it uses the keyword you typed in to query a database and send the output to your screen. I do have my rollover effects on the buttons and the fade in (only seen in IE) on each page in Javascript.

Dynamic data is provided by scripts. These can be in many languages PHP (in my case) Javascript, VBS etc. Scripting is a double edged sword. Used ethically it can transform a boring site into a wonderful tool or toy. Used maliciously it can send you viruses, try to install spyware on your PC, open window after window overloading your browser and forcing it to close etc.

IE does not ask about what the script does, it simply obeys it, for good or ill. If that script instructs your Windows operating system to wipe itself, it will obey, leaving you without a PC. This is an extreme example, most want control of your contacts list in your email program, and control over your email address to spam with. The spam appears to come from you, while you get the blame, and punishment while knowing nothing about it.

NoScripts blocks all scripts from running by default, and a simple click let’s you see which sites are trying to run scripts on that page. You can either allow or temporarily allow (that permission is removed when you close that browser session) one particular script while denying others.

  1. Either IE View or IE Tab. These both do the same job in slightly different ways. When you stumble upon the odd page which Firefox can’t render a simple right click and you’ll have the option to “open IE tab” or “always view in IE” depending on which extension you use. IE Tab opens that page in a new tab within the Firefox window and uses the IE rendering engine to display it meaning it’s like using IE inside Firefox. IE View opens IE and goes straight to that page, it also remembers that choice for future use. With either of these extensions (I prefer IE Tab, but that’s a personal thing) you will never need to dirty your screen with IE again.

  2. PDF Download. Everyone has at some time needed to go and check an online FAQ section, terms and conditions, or instruction manual. As the .pdf format is suitable for all operating systems, keeps the formatting, and has a free Adobe Acrobat Reader program to view it; it’s the format of choice for this purpose. It’s also my format of choice but that’s a separate issue. If you click on a .pdf version of a manual it opens in IE, you don’t get a choice. Personally I like to have a copy on my PC to study offline. PDF Download pops up with a choice every time you click on a .pdf file. It asks you if you want to download it (and where to) or open it in Firefox or another program like Adobe Acrobat.

  3. Trashmail. How many times have you needed a little piece of info from a forum or site and they tell you that you must join to access it. Not only that, but they insist on sending the sign in info to the email address you provide. This stops you using a bogus email address. It also hands your email address to a site you don’t know, who may or may not use it to spam you. Trashmail is the solution to this.

Trashmail is a temporary email address, which you create on the fly and provide to the site you’re required to join. All emails from this site are sent to your Trashmail email account, which are then forwarded to your real account. This means you get those sign in details and the site in question only has a Trashmail email address for you.

The Trashmail account only lasts one week, before it’s automatically deleted which means that if you like the site and chose to stay, you can change your account preferences and give your real email address. If they start spamming you you can delete the account manually or just leave it to run it’s course. In one week any emails sent to it will bounce back to the sender “account unknown”. It has a limit on the number of “forwards” before it deletes itself too, each email it forwards to you takes one from that total.

It’s as simple as right clicking in the part of the form asking for your email address and “paste disposable email address”. Simple process but fantastic for avoiding spam. It makes taking a risk much safer.

  1. Link Alert. This shows a little icon for what type of file it’s linking to which is handy for spotting a potential problem sooner. If the link claims to be a site, and it’s an executable file (program) you don’t click on it.

  2. Fasterfox. This extension optimizes the order in which parts of a page are downloaded to give a faster display of the page you want. It also times the result for web designers looking to shave a few seconds here and there in their own work. It does put a little extra strain on the server supplying the page which may have other effects if everyone uses this extension From what I can work out, it’s more like a queue jumping tool to tell the server to give you the page before anyone without the extension.

  3. Translator. How many of you can speak multiple languages? I am learning Spanish although I’m at a beginner level at speaking Spanish. This extension translates the page from a surprisingly large number of options. English to French, Italian to English etc It had Japanese support still in beta (testing) mode right now.

Sometimes your hobby is a little obscure for your native country, and you need to go to the source (Anime is a perfect example) where all the info you’re looking for is aimed at the Japanese surfer, written in Japanese. Until now, all you could do was look at the pictures and try to find an English (if that’s your preferred language) version of the information. The Translator extension translates the page for you in the language of your choice in a new tab.

No machine or program will give you perfect results, and there will be odd words it can’t work out or may give a hilariously bad guess at. At the moment it seems to be the major world languages it covers but this will grow to include Russian, Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese) and Arabic.

It’s also a great tool for helping learn a language; I’ve read through much of my own site in Spanish and it appears to be spot on. One thing which throws the translation off a little is a page with spelling errors or slang in it’s original language (you can’t do anything about this). I spell check every page before uploading it so mine should translate accurately into almost any language.

In Firefox 2.0 there are enhanced features for RSS content like my blog. You can now subscribe to a live feed and keep track of them via “live bookmarks” or an external RSS reader like Feed Reader that I use. Add to that the synchronizing of the Free Download Manager program to control your Firefox downloads it’s an essential web surfers tool. There are a few more extensions worthy of note that I use, but are for specific purposes and are not suitable for all. YM Notifier (a Yahoo mail notifier program), Video Downloader (a tool for downloading embedded movie and music content from pages like YouTube). Embedded objects need to be streamed direct from the server normally, which requires you to be online and at the site to see them. My Flash banner at the top of each page is an embedded object; go ahead and try to download it to your PC in IE.

Customize Google allows you to refine the Google search engine and services to your needs, blocking adverts etc. The Torrent Search Bar allows you to search for Bit Torrents from a central place as well as providing an RSS feed of the latest uploads which you can be starting to download with a few clicks of the mouse.

I could go on endlessly, but this goldmine of extensions are for you to explore and get your web browser working the way you want it to. Do take care to note that the extensions are built by users, and that some are better than others. Add to that, that not all extensions work with all versions of Firefox. I have several I used to use in 1.5 that ain’t updated yet for 2.0. Firefox is intelligent enough to detect these, and disable them automatically with no damage. It also looks for updates to them in it’s normal check; if it finds an update it offers to get the update, install it and enable it again for you. Also, too many extensions slow your browser down, so feel free to experiment but don’t go too wild. I had around 20 (some quite large) on my dial up connection with no noticeable effect.

The more people who are educated on safe and secure web surfing with a decent browser, the less web annoyances we’ll all get. Owners and operators of malicious sites want people to surf in IE. This lets their programs run to get more email addresses to spam from, or install a keylogger to watch your keystrokes and let them into your bank account or simply to turn more PC’s into zombies for their own purposes. They want you to arrive at their site in your paper-mail armour vest assuming you’re safe while they do what they want to you. Why let them? Get a proper armored vest and do what you can reasonably do to protect yourself.

On the less severe side of the scale, web developers like me are kinda hypocrites on Firefox, we surf ourselves in Firefox, yet want our customers to surf in IE. Advertising which keeps a lot of our content free to you is blocked in Firefox (with the right extensions). The extreme side of this scale is that if everyone used Firefox with ad blocking extensions there’d be no point in advertisers putting adverts on sites. This means that payment for services may need to switch over to subscription based. As good as this is for us individually, collectively it has a long term cost.


2 Responses to “The magic of Firefox”

  1. Dmitri Says:

    One thing Firefox did is it killed font embedding. I remember times when I used WEFT all the time. Now it’s really not an option. But Adblock is a real time-saver: I have seen sites that have offers of the “pay and we won’t show you ads” variety. Despicable. One thing it fails to block is Google AdSense, which is a pity – I hope it learns to block that too.

  2. Dirk Gently Says:

    Where theres a profit to be made, people will try to get round it. The more people who switch to browsers like Firefox which can block adverts with AdBlock….the less people will see the adverts on websites. This does create revenue for webmasters; if this drops to a certain point they do need to look at their options……so the idea of “pay and get no adverts” is kinda understandable.

    I’ve noticed IE7’s answer to the modular based Firefox with the ability to add bits and pieces on to suit your needs. They have add ons too……..many are not free. Typical Microsoft; anything to turn a profit. I actually thought they’d learned……might have known.

    I’ve not bothered with their version of an advert blocker, I doubt it’d stop the adverts on Microsoft’s own sites; my guess is that they consider their own adverts to be “critical consumer information packages” or some other bullshit way of making sure they play by their own rules.

    They consider the WGA program who’s ONLY purpose for existing is to check to see if your version of Windows is genuine or not… be a CRITICAL update. They seem to have a different dictionary from the rest of us.

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