This is my second posting on the Mozilla Firefox web browser which continues to gain popularity by leaps and bounds. It is undoubtedly the first (and arguably only, with due respect to Opera and Apple Safari) browser to seriously challenge the hegemony of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) since the days when Microsoft trounced Netscape Navigator (now part of AOL) to become the undisputed leader of the web browser market.
Indeed, as per the latest statistics made available by W3C, Firefox now commands over 40% of the web browser market share, which is a rather commendable effort considering Mozilla was directly up against the financial and strategic “muscle” of the mighty Microsoft Corporation itself, which has never shied from using its strength to either destroy its competition (as in the case of Netscape) or gobble it up.
My emphasis in this article will be on the enhancements and new features made available as part of Mozilla’s Firefox 3.0 release. I have been using Firefox 3 right from the day of its release and have personally observed or verified most of the points I have mentioned below.
Following are some of the salient new enhancements in Firefox 3:
Functionality improvements (relevant for ordinary users):
1. Noticeably faster web browsing due to reduced web page loading times. Thanks to significant architectural improvements, the overall time to load a web page along with images, Flash content, etc. is much lower as compared to IE or even the previous version of Firefox. Also, the Firefox program itself also takes very little time to load as compared to IE, since it’s not as resource-hungry as the latter.
2. Hugely reduced memory usage, compared to Firefox 2 and certainly to IE 7. IE really tends to slow down your system heavily if it’s been running for any reasonable length of time. With Firefox, you will notice a significant improvement in your computer’s performance even if you have several tabs open.
3. New “smart” Address Bar, which is basically a search engine in itself. It works as follows: instead of storing only visited web page addresses (URLs) in the browser cache, which is what all browsers did uptil now, Firefox 3 stores the URL andthe title of the web page in its cache. So, instead of typing a portion of the URL in the address bar and letting the browser match it with URLs in its cache, you can enter a part of the URL and/or the page title (which is usually easier to recollect) and Firefox does a lookup in its cache and displays the results to you.
For instance, if you want to go to the Yahoo! Mail website, you need not type http://mail.yahoo.com if you’ve already visited it before from that computer; instead you could just type “yahoo mail” and Firefox would list that URL and other matches for your typed string in its search results below. Similarly, instead of typing http://www.vijaypadiyar.in/blog to get to my blog (titled “Vijay Padiyar’s Blog”), you could just type in “vijay padiyar blog” and let Firefox fetch my URL for you.
4. Improved Download Manager with support for resuming downloads, so you don’t have to worry about starting downloads from scratch after a program crash or a network connection reset. This eliminates the need to install specialized Download Managers like Download Accelerator Plus.
5. Improved customization support with thousands of add-ons, themes and plugins. Also, finding and installing add-ons hardly takes a minute or two and couldn’t be simpler! You can view, configure and manage your add-ons, themes and plugins by clicking on Add-ons under the Tools menu.
Some of the useful add-ons that I use are FoxyTunes (which allows you to control any media player from your browser’s status bar), Image Toolbar (similar to the image toolbar in IE 6), IE Tab (which allows you to view a web page as it would appear on IE) and Fission (animated Vista-style progress bar merged with the address bar). I also use the Vista-aero theme which makes Firefox looks exactly like IE 7 (see below).
6. Session Save & Restore feature: In the event of a program crash or restart (say, after an upgrade), this feature saves and restores your open web pages (including typed text, in case you were typing an email!) and even resumes in-progress downloads, so you can literally continue from where you were interrupted! This is another very useful feature that was earlier available as an add-on but has now been integrated into Firefox 3.
Also, the related Save & Quit feature allows you to save all open tabs when you try to close the Firefox program, so you can restore the session later.
Thirdly, the related Restore Closed Tabs feature allows you to restore accidentally closed tabs. In fact, you can reopen any of the last 10 closed tabs from the History menu.It may be noted that tabbed browsing has been present in Firefox for a long time now, and only recently made its way into IE with IE 7.
7. Built-in Feed Reader that allows you to add feeds and stores them as “Live Bookmarks” in the Bookmarks
menu (Bookmarks in Firefox are what IE calls Favorites). They then appear as virtual folders, the contents of which are the latest posts on the web page associated with the feed.
8. Integrated Web Search Bar allows you to do a web search without opening a search engine page. You can also choose which search engine(s) you want to integrate in Firefox. Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia search are included by default.
9. Improved Bookmarks Organizer that makes managing bookmarks more convenient.
Security enhancements (relevant for security-conscious users):
1. Built-in protection from online viruses and spyware. Firefox maintains a continuously updated list of malicious sites and alerts you via a full-sized browser message when you try to visit any website or URL classified as malicious (see below).
2. Built-in Pop-up Blocker that allows you to choose which sites to block pop-ups from.
3. Numerous security add-ons are available to block flash objects, ads/banners, etc. from running without the user explicitly clicking on them. Some of the most popular ones are AdBlock Plus, FlashBlock, etc.
4. Improved “phishing” protection. Phishing is defined as tricking users into revealing sensitive data (such as usernames/passwords, credit card numbers, etc.) by taking them to forged sites that are deliberately designed to look like the original site and asking them to enter their details (typically on the pretext of account verification).
Firefox 2 protected users against phishing by maintaing a database of known forged sites (updated every 30 minutes) and throwing up a warning page in case a user clicks on any such URL. In Firefox 3, additionally, the site’s security certificate can be viewed by clicking on the site’s favicon (the icon next to the URL in the address bar) and it’s legitimacy can be ascertained.
5. Automatic updates for the browser and add-ons, to make sure that you’re protected against the latest threats.
6. Better integration with the computer’s antivirus software. Firefox invokes the antivirus software to check for viruses or spyware whenever files are downloaded, once again negating the need for a specialized Download Manager.
7. Improved Password Manager that no longer appears as a pop-up box, but is displayed at the top of the page just under the tab bar after logging in.
With all these features, it’s not surprising at all that more and more people are junking clunky old IE and moving to Firefox. After all, it has all the advantages of IE and more, without the associated security risks or program stability issues. Not to mention, it consumes significantly lesser memory, which can vastly improve your computer’s performance if it doesn’t have a lot of RAM.
Firefox has also (commendably) taken adequate care to ensure that a first-time user migrating from IE does not have to face any hassles whatsoever. The Firefox setup automatically imports your bookmarks, browsing history, home page(s) and other saved settings from IE, so you need not have to worry about transferring them yourself.
So, if you’ve changed your mind about IE and wish to move to Firefox, you can get it right here. Download, install and enjoy!