Business-like, isn't he?



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    Firefox in the Microsoft browser chicken coop

    by  Alan Zisman (c) 2006 First published in Business in Vancouver Business in Vancouver January 31-February 6, 2006; issue 849

    High Tech Office column; 

    005 was the year that an open-source software project made major inroads into at least one area of the Microsoft hegemony. Having decisively trounced rival Web browser Netscape in the late 1990s, since the 2001 release of Internet Explorer 6, Microsoft hasn't paid much attention to its market-dominating Web browser.

    In November 2004, the open source Mozilla team ( officially released the Firefox browser. While related to earlier Netscape and Mozilla browsers, Firefox was built from scratch.

    It left out the e-mail software, chat, Web page development and other features built into older browsers, making for a smaller download and better performance. (Other Mozilla-related projects offer separate programs for e-mail, calendar, Web page development and more.)

    Firefox avoids Internet Explorer's insecure Active X plug-ins (though this renders it incapable of working with such Active X-based websites as Microsoft's Windows Update and some e-business sites). It also offers built-in pop-up blocking.

    User-interface features such as tabbed browsing make it possible to simultaneously visit multiple websites without cluttering the screen. A built-in search field defaults to Google but also allows a user to quickly search using a variety of alternative sites. Support for extensions and themes has encouraged development of hundreds of add-ins that offer optional enhancements and eye candy.

    Available free with versions for Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, over 100 million copies of Firefox were downloaded in 2005. By the end of the year, Firefox accounted for an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of Web traffic and is now being pre-installed by Dell on systems sold in the U.K. and Australia. Late in 2005, the Mozilla folks released version 1.5, the first major upgrade to Firefox.

    Perhaps the most important enhancement in the new version is auto-updates. To update earlier versions, users had to download an entire new copy of Firefox and replace the older installation.

    Firefox 1.5 looks for upgrades in the background, quietly downloading just what's needed to keep itself up to date. A one-click Clear Personal Data option is handy, quickly clearing out the browser history, cache and cookies. The new version supports more cutting-edge Web standards, while still avoiding the insecure Active X.

    (If you really need to access an IE-specific website, check the optional IE Tab extension, which uses Internet Explorer to load the problematic Web page onto a Firefox tab. Very slick.)

    The update seems to load even complex Web pages faster than earlier versions. Clicking the Back button displays previous pages almost instantaneously.

    Firefox 1.5 breaks some older Firefox extensions. When it loads for the first time it looks for updates to any incompatible extensions and themes and turns off any that can't be updated.

    Some of my favourite extensions: Tab X, Colorful Tabs and Tabbrowser Preferences to improve on Firefox's tab browsing; FireFTP to make Firefox do double-duty transferring files to websites and other locations; and AdBlock, which does just what you'd expect.

    As Firefox's user-base has grown, reports of its vulnerabilities have also increased.

    The open source community has been quick to respond to these security holes, and version 1.5's improved abilities make it more likely that users of the new version will stay up-to-date.

    Recent reports suggest that adoption of Firefox is slowing. (I guess the first 100 million are the easiest!) While it may be getting harder to make inroads into the many millions of users for whom Internet Explorer's pre-installed blue 'e' icon stands for the Internet, Business Week reported that 2005 was the year when open source alternatives, including Firefox, "finally gained traction in corporate America."

    If nothing else, the success of Firefox has woken Microsoft from of its browser lethargy.

    The company has begun beta-testing a new Internet Explorer 7, with Firefox-like tabbed browsing and other enhancements.

    Firefox gets my nomination for most important software product of 2005. If you haven't already tried it out, download a copy. And if you're running an older version, get the new version 1.5 now.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan