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Posted May 14, 2004

Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox

by Gareth Russell

Mozilla - Back to Basics Part1-Firefox LogoThere are two wildly successful open source projects right now that are sweeping across Windows, Mac & Linux desktops. Firefox and Thunderbird. Both applications have two distinct characteristics. They are stripped down versions of their predecessor - the Mozilla bundle, and both are based on a plugin structure allowing users to include only features they want or need permitting them to remain simple to use.

In this first of two installments we take a look at Mozilla's Firefox web browser.


Mozilla Firefox is the next generation open source Internet browser from the Mozilla Foundation, and is set to succeed Mozilla Navigator as the default browser for the Mozilla suite of applications at some point in the near future. Firefox and its sister project Mozilla Thunderbird (the new Mozilla mail and news client) are standalone projects which can be run in isolation from one another, making it possible to replace your tired standard browser with a fresh copy of Firefox without getting all the extra bloat you won’t use. It’s exactly this approach and thinking which lies at the heart of the project and is behind its phenomenal success. The Firefox project was started in 2003 with the aim of becoming the best browser for Microsoft Windows as a result of the disillusionment of a group of developers with the current Navigator program. The group wanted to create a browser to illustrate what a browser could be if it was based on the Gecko layout engine and XPFE with no commercial constraints and no feature creep. At the same time they aimed to strip down the user interface and redesign it until it achieved the goal of being an efficient easy to use way to access the web. Simplicity was and is the projects goal with the embracing of the “less is more” adage, something which I believe they have achieved.
".. if only all open source programs were like this."
At the time of writing Firefox is currently version 0.8 and fully workable as it approaches its milestone 1.0 release. Its release schedule is focused not on deadlines but rather when the browser is ready after the bugs have been squashed and the appropriate features have been implemented. The positive affect of this is that its not a project which is pressurised to fulfil commercial deadlines and therefore focuses more on the quality of the product. This approach can often be found to be lacking in open source programs as they increasing comply with commercial demands.

The method of installation of the program depends on what operating system you are using. If you’re using Windows or Mac OS X then there’s an easy to use installer which will quickly and without fuss install the program for you. Linux users on the other hand are slightly disadvantaged as there is no installer for the precompiled version although one is planned for 0.9 and above. And of course as with any other open source application the source code is also available for you to compile from scratch if you feel so inclined.
"Firefox really excels in its simplicity, which is a real credit to the developers. They’ve managed to keep a tight control on the features included in the browser by saying “no” to a lot of submissions. There is no clutter in the browser and the whole experience is one which is focused solely on how a normal user accesses the internet."
Once you’ve got Firefox installed and loaded you’re instantly struck by the simplicity of the program and the feeling that it “just works”, this is mainly a result of the less is more attitude which the developers have applied throughout. The user interface throughout the program is well thought out and intuitive, everything is exactly where you’d expect to find it so there’s no hunting for this or that as with so many other programs out there. The simplicity of the user interface also has something to do with the fewer features which Firefox has, which makes it harder to clutter up the menus. Overall the menus and dialogues have been well thought out so that you can spend more time browsing and enjoying the web rather than fighting with your browser.

Firefox feels fast and responsive with a lot of emphasis being placed on good default settings which allow the you to get on with the task of surfing the net, rather than having to spend time playing with the settings. Good compliance to the W3C standards for DOM, XML and CSS among others ensures that you see the web exactly how it was intended to be seen. By default pop-ups are blocked, the status bar cannot be altered by a webpage and your privacy is maintained in a sensible manner. Yet even if you feel you have to change a setting it’s a stress free experience, after all how many times have you entered an options panel of a browser only to be hit by a huge deluge of options when all you wanted to do was clear your cache? With Firefox that should no longer be a problem as the Options Panel contains a small array of sensible options in an easily accessible format. Although the range of options isn’t particularly extensive all of the options have been carefully chosen, leaving you free of the deluge of options often encountered in Internet Explorer, Opera or even Mozilla Navigator. A refreshing change you have to agree.
"...you’re instantly struck by the simplicity of the program and the feeling that it 'just works'"
Tabbed browsing is an important element of the Firefox experience, although its nothing new or revolutionary its very well integrated into the browser with new tabs being opened behind your current content so that you can deal with them when you want rather than when they’ve finished loading. Equally important is the google search box in the top right hand corner of the browser an ingeniously simple touch which speeds up your travel around the web without adding clutter to the browser. It integrates so well into the browser that you won’t even notice its there, until that is you use another browser and find yourself having to manually travel to google to perform your search. Of course you can add more search engines to the browser if you feel you need them but what Firefox provides is the least that it can to make your browsing experience more accessible.

Firefox really excels in its simplicity, which is a real credit to the developers. They’ve managed to keep a tight control on the features included in the browser by saying “no” to a lot of submissions. There is no clutter in the browser and the whole experience is one which is focused solely on how a normal user accesses the internet. Yet the developers have been careful not to dictate the less is more adage to the user and Firefox is highly configurable through a series of extensions. The extensions in Firefox enable you to import the functions which you might need which are left out in the standard Firefox but are not essential to everyone. This allows you to tailor the browser to your needs, making it more functional for you. But did I mention the sheer range of extensions which are available for download or how simple it is to download the extensions? Extensions can range from Mouse gesturing to an integrated Calendar for your browser if you so desire. Extensions are written in several different ways such as C++, JavaScript or XML and nearly all are provided direct from the community. To install an extension all you need to do is visit the extension page select the one you want, click a link and it’ll automatically install for you. Again managing extensions is a breeze with the Extensions dialogue in the Options Panel. Themes are just as easy to download and manage, so that you can have the browser looking exactly how you want it.

As with all programs however there are more or two annoying parts to it, for example the download manager which is integrated into Firefox I have found to be next to useless. I’m a 56K user who struggles with meagre bandwidth and unpredictable connections which can suddenly drop out. The effect of this is that I may be cut off mid-download and I have to reconnect in order to resume the download. Firefox is unable to detect that the download has abruptly stopped and that it can carry on with the download when resumed, instead it states that the file has been fully downloaded which causes me to have to download the file all over again. A minor problem I’ll admit but an annoyance nonetheless, its something which shouldn’t occur in a project which is so focused on making the browsing experience stress free.

The future of Mozilla Firefox is looking good as well, as the browser is set to become the flagship product for the Mozilla Foundation. As I said earlier Firefox will be renamed Mozilla Browser upon its inclusion into the suite of Mozilla applications. This next generation suite of applications will consist of a series of standalone applications which can either be downloaded together or separately allowing you to use Mozilla how you want. In terms of features still to be implemented into Firefox the development team are aiming to be “feature complete” for version 0.9 with a Linux Installer, better mail integration and some API changes. The gap between 0.9 and 1.0 will be mainly used to remove any bugs – if they exist from the program so that 1.0 really is the best browser available. 1.0 is currently expected to be available some time in August 2004.

Firefox is a real joy to use, and an example of how Open Source programs should be. The developers have really focused on issues which have plagued Open Source software for a while, namely the user interface of the program and feature bloat. The user interface is well thought out and has not been developed with the developer in mind rather the every day person, which makes the application more accessible and is better as a result. At the same time the project have concentrated on doing a small number of tasks perfectly rather than trying to do many tasks adequately, the developers knew when to say “no” to new features and the program they created is all the better for it. It’s a breath of fresh air in a sea of feature creep, a true delight and a shining example for other projects out there albeit with some minor problems, if only all open source programs were like this.

--
Links:Gareth Russell is a Student living in Rural Suffolk in England. Gareth has been a Linux and Open Source enthusiast since July 2001 when he discovered Linux, having started out on Mandrake Linux 7.2, Gareth eventually moved on from Mandrake when Red Hat 8 was released and has stayed with Red Hat ever since. Gareth is an administrator of FedoraForum.org an online forum for Fedora Core support. His other interests include gaming, rock music and politics. Gareth can be contacted at gareth@fedoraforum.org


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Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 2, Interesting)
by Anonymous on May 15, 2004 - 02:14 PM
Just to add one more annoyance: Firefox is generally excellent, but struggles terribly if you try download more than one page or document at a time on OSX. Its possible that the threading on Firefox (to allow more than one task to proceed concurrently) isn't what it could be. If you're in the habit of working several pages or sites concurrently, you're better off with Safari at this point; Safari will at least let you switch to another tab while you're waiting for another to be downloaded and rendered. Currently Firefox spits up the spinning wheel which of course blocks you from doing anything else other than waiting... For whatever reason it seems particularly noticeable if you access a graphics-laden site while something is going on.


Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 0)
by Anonymous on May 15, 2004 - 02:48 PM
I installed Firefox about a month ago and I am simply loving it. It's surely a nice piece of software. Kudos to developers!!

-Manu Garg


Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 2, Informative)
by chozsun on May 17, 2004 - 07:32 AM
The speed at which Firefox for Windows renders pages is downright scary. I am a longtime user of Opera and I believe that the recent version of Firefox is noticeably faster than Opera (which is saying a heck of a lot). Trying to compare Firefox and IE... well, why even bother.

I will say that although I love the "stripped down but still has many features" approach to Firefox, I recently became irritated with the lack of standards among Firefox's plugins. About a month ago, I installed Firefox on my home machine with a plugin that added incredible amount of options and functionality to tabbed browsers. (Despite what others may say, Opera is the king and ruler of all that is tabbed browsing and mouse gestures for that matter so naturally, I was trying to get Firefox to behave more like Opera in terms of tabbed browsing.) A month of ago, I was able to do so: switch the tabs to the bottom, when I Ctrl+Click on a link, it would open to a new tab, stay in one window, etc. When I got to my new job and decided I did not want IE to keep zapping my will to live, I installed Firefox but I could not find that powerful plugin again.

I agree with the author at the semi-downloader. I also installed Firefox for the superior downloader (compared to IE) since I had to download 1GB files here and there. Very frustrating that it would cut out and the only way you would know is if you knew the actual size of the file that you needed to download and what you got did not measure up. With highlighting the item you are trying to download in Opera, you can check the info window instantly for File Size and Amount Downloaded. If it does not work out, restart the file transfer. (I have had to use this like 10 times with Opera which is always a result of the network to the file I am trying to get).

Firefox has made great strides since 0.9 and even in it's first Beta, it was head and heels over IE. For my money and time, Opera is still the one to beat.


Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 0)
by Anonymous on May 18, 2004 - 04:30 AM
I've been using Firefox since early v0.7 and I'm completely spoiled by tabbed browsing and configurability. I've installed a couple of ad-blocking extansions that make my browsing experience less annoying. My only gripe is that it seems to take an awfully long time for FireFox to start up in Windows for such a "lean" application. (At least compared to the primary alternative browser, which fires right up.) I recommend FireFox heartily.


Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 1, Interesting)
by Anonymous on May 20, 2004 - 06:28 PM
It sure would be nice if the developers took off the kiddy gloves though...When you try to download an .exe file, you are forced to save it to your hard drive, rather then having a handy "Open" option to run the file. This is incredibly annoying when you're downloading many small programs, such as after doing a fresh reinstall of a computer. Instead of quickly downloading and installing a program, you have to locate each one and start the installation manually.

A great browser, but the downloading features are quite the annoyance.


Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 1, Funny)
by Anonymous on May 20, 2004 - 08:16 PM
I enjoyed your article, I found it to be extremely I enjoyed your article, I found it to be...

Get the point? Your article, while interesting, is simply wrought with repetious errors. Spell check isn't enough when proofing an online publication - read and re-read your content to ensure that what you're posting makes sense.



Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 1, Funny)
by Anonymous on May 20, 2004 - 09:07 PM
Anyone out there use Avant Browser? www.avantbrowser.com

If anyone does, and also uses Firefox, please show me how to make FireFox more functional like Avant is.

Otherwise I'll stick with avant... also someone should make a plugin atleast that makes firefox complient with non standard HTML, a lot of sites I visit have non standard HTML, and prevents me from using FireFox.


the wrong approach (Score: 1, Funny)
by Anonymous on May 21, 2004 - 03:54 PM
The concept behind Firefox/Thunderbird has many flaws IMO: first, they concentrate on a marked segment that is alread occupied: the "yet another simple browser" segment. The basic version offers hardly anything that could motivate anyone who is not a geek or opensource activist to download and switch. So - extensions: the idea to put everything but the most basic things in extensions provided by any contributor is flawed in many ways: there is no formal reviewing of the code as in the core - extensions could crash your browser, cause problems, or even contain security problems or spy-components. Extensions are not in any way coordinated - so there are many overlapping or incompatible features. Extensions are not coordinated with regard to GUI and look and feel - different people will have different tastes how and where to integrate things in the GUI. Unlike with the core, noone knows which extensions will be kept up to date or receive bug fixes also in the future. In one word, extensions are a huge, terrible mess and the situation will get worse.


Instead, the Mozilla foundation should concentrate on one feature rich, integrated application that finds its niche among power users. Instead of reinventing the wheel, do the real innovative thing and provide users with something they do not find in other browser/email apps.


Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 0)
by Anonymous on Jun 30, 2004 - 10:26 PM
First of all, I think Firefox is great. And I love Thunderbird too. However, I o­nly use the latter.

Let's make it clear. Windows does come with a web browser and an email client. Comparing Thunderbird to Outlook Express is like comparing a Ferrari to a Ford. So, without a doubt, I am managing my emails with Thunderbird.

I do love Firefox's tabbed window. However, Internet Explorer does have too! There are a number of browsers based o­n IE engine that let you do tabbed browsing. o­ne good example is MyIE2 (www.myie2.com). And in many ways, these applications provide a better tabbed browsing environment than Firefox, and even Opera.

Besides, it's also a fact that IE is still the browser de facto. As a result, many helper applications (aka toolbar plugins) are available for IE users o­nly. (Google Toolbar is o­ne example. Of course there is o­ne for Firefox, but the hacked or community version often lacks many features found in the original version). Oh, and Stumble Upon.

Firefox and Thunderbird are priceless treasures to us without a doubt. I am sure Firefox will excel IE in terms of functionalities and ease of use. I am waiting for the day to come.


Re: Mozilla - Back to Basics: Part 1 Firefox (Score: 0)
by Anonymous on Sep 14, 2004 - 02:59 AM
Some people seem to forget that Firefox is still in a pre-release state. In fact they have just now released their 'Preview Release'.
How long are they working on Internet Explorer, Opera or Netscape?

Having used various browsers over the years (IE, Opera, Netscape etc etc) I have finally found the best, Firefox! And having used Firefox since Firebird 0.5 I have been greatly impressed with how much they have come along, with speed, stability, functionality and cosmetics.
And it will only get better in future!!!!




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