Firefox—A Fast, Safe Alternative to Internet Explorer December 8, 2007Posted by scriptmarket in Uncategorized.
by Kevin Christy
I’m not a Microsoft-basher; I use their products productively virtually every day of my life. Excel is my workhorse, Word my constant companion for nearly a decade, PowerPoint my standard for presentations, Visio Professional a powerful tool in my arsenal, and I rely on Outlook to keep track of notes, emails, contacts, tasks, and my calendar.
I have also been using Internet Explorer since about 1996, when it came pre-loaded on a computer I bought. I found it to be adequate, and certainly seemed to be on the cutting edge (anybody remember “push technology”?). But increasingly over time it came to be an annoyance, and may represent the worst of what Microsoft is accused of: arrogance (openly flaunting internet standards and creating new ones on its own), monopolistic aggression (folding IE into Windows, virtually destroying the independent browser market overnight), and outright carelessness (creating a browser with a seemingly endless number of security holes). IE is relatively slow and clunky, has a sub-par user interface, and seems to be an ideal breeding ground for adware, malware, spyware, worms, you name it.
Malicious Geeks Want You to Use Internet Explorer
In fairness to Microsoft, a significant portion of their woes with IE are probably unavoidable; IE, with its whopping share of the browser market, is simply a big, obvious target. While there are plenty of script kiddies and crackers who revel in sabotaging all things Microsoft, people who are after you for your private information and who want to push ads on you could care less whether Microsoft wrote your browser’s code or some idealistic troupe of open-source pioneers. If some other browser gained significant market share, I’m sure they would be after that browser’s vulnerabilities too, and every browser is vulnerable to one degree or another. None of this should excuse the degree to which IE is susceptible to these problems.
Despite my careful online behavior and regular downloading of security updates from Microsoft, I found that my system was absolutely besodden with adware, spyware, and malware; an Ad-aware scan revealed over 150 different intrusive objects. My browser had been hijacked, God only knows who was spying on me, and pop-up ads were no longer getting defeated by my Google toolbar. Nasty stuff, and all of it courtesy of a worldwide army (including the Russian mob) of malevolent geeks and profiteers eagerly exploiting IE’s security holes. Fortunately, Ad-aware was very effective at getting rid of that loathsome junkware.
Until, that is, I ran IE again. And then they came back. Again. And again. Each time I would run Ad-aware, and they would be gone, and then they would come back. Finally, my copy of IE simply started freezing. Damn!
Lest you think I’m making this up, or that I’m just a Microsoft basher, consider this: the United States Government’s Department of Homeland Security considers Internet Explorer enough of a threat to security to recommend you find another browser. Also, some companies, fed up with constant security hassles, are migrating their workstations to alternative browsers.
Alternatives to IE
Aside from jumping the Windows ship altogether and going to Mac or Linux—most of us have too much invested in hardware, software, and compatibility to hazard that—alternatives do exist in the commercial and open source realms.
In the commercial realm, the Opera browser is a longstanding alternative that first arose years ago as a fleet, trimmed-down response to increasingly bloated competitors Netscape and IE. Opera is available for Windows, Macintosh, Linux, Solaris, FreeBSD, OS/2, QNX, and even cellphones (which I will be reviewing for my Roam Office column in Techtrax). You can download an ad-supported free version of Opera or pay $39 for an ad-free version product. Opera also includes a mail client, a chat client, and an address book (that does not import directly from Outlook, but will from Outlook Express).
In the open source realm, the release of the Netscape Navigator code into the open source domain in 1998 spawned the Mozilla open source browser initiative, a collaborative project that has resulted in an award-winning browser, mail client, web page development environment, and news reader. I have tried Mozilla a couple of times over the years (once as recently as a year ago), but since I read my mail in Outlook, I don’t develop websites, and I don’t read newsgroups, a large portion of the program was unnecessary to me. What I needed was a lightweight browser that was extensible but was not loaded down with extras that I didn’t want.
Then Came Firefox
To address just this need, the kind people behind the Mozilla project crafted Firefox, designed from the start to be a lightweight, fast, secure, multiple platform stand-alone browser. Built on the mature Mozilla code base (built itself on the timeless—as in, all of about ten years old—Netscape Navigator code), Firefox is Mozilla stripped to its essentials.
Load it, and what you find is a fast-loading, clean, uncluttered interface, and all your bookmarks, settings, and even your site logins have been imported. The standard browser navigations icons (Back, Forward, Reload, Stop, and Home) are all there, along with an address bar and a nice Google search bar next to it, handy for quick searches.
The interface is highly customizable. For instance, here are a few of the themes that can be easily added to Firefox via the built-in Theme Manager:
Bookmark management is critical for heavy internet users such as me, and I must say that Firefox’s bookmark services are the most intuitive, easiest to use and maintain that I’ve found among the browsers. The standard bookmark toolbar can be activated via the View menu, and appears underneath the navigation toolbar:
As you can see, the bookmark menu has both folders, which group bookmarks by category, and individual bookmarks for those that either don’t fit into categories that you create or that you commonly access.
Let me introduce one very handy feature, Open in Tabs, to showcase another great feature, tabbed browsing. As a news junkie, I visit a number of sites throughout the day to keep abreast of what’s going on. With Firefox and tabbed browsing, I can load all of the sites that I like to visit into one window with just a click of my mouse:
Now, each page in the folder is loaded simultaneously as tabs in the current window:
I can now easily tab back and forth between the pages to quickly browse my favorite news and commentary sites (admittedly conservative, but you can substitute The Nation, Salon, the Washington Post, Michaelmoore.com, or whatever your heart desires).
I mentioned that Firefox is extensible, and what I mean by that is that there are a variety of free tools that you can easily add to Firefox via the Extensions Manager:
From here, Firefox can find, install, update, or uninstall from, at the time of this writing in July 2004, over 80 different extensions enabling Firefox to:
- Easily search Bible verses
- Block anything on web sites: ads, images, Flash content, scripts, etc.
- Manage cookies
- Post to LiveJournal directly from Firefox
- Look up words in an online dictionary
- Go directly to, or “stumble upon” websites that have been highly rated by others
- Auto reload pages at set intervals
…and much more. I have only begun to seriously evaluate some of these features, and the Bible verse lookup tool is a prize in itself.
One “feature” that always bugged me was that if I mistyped a URL in IE (such as http://www.yahoo.cmo), IE would send me to a proprietary Microsoft search page, which would lose my original URL and make me either follow one of IE’s guesses about where I wanted to go, or I would have to type the URL all over again. Firefox’s navigation tool uses Google’s “I Feel Lucky” service, where you type in a search term and Google takes you to the most likely results page. For instance, if I want to go to Yahoo!, I just type “yahoo” in the navigation bar, and Firefox takes me to Yahoo!. This works for all the obvious websites: “drudge” gets you to the Drudge Report, “nyt” gets you to the New York Times, “amazon” gets you Amazon.com, etc. What becomes interesting about this feature is that if Google/Firefox does not have an obvious web page reference to take you to, it will provide a definition of the word for you from Dictionary.com. For instance, I typed in “fungible” and got:
Ha! Handy tool. Here’s an example of what Firefox provided when I keyed in a variety of terms:
“find a good book” Hennepin County Library search page, where books can be searched for by author, genre, etc. “weird history” The Weird History 101 website “psycho” The website for DVD sales of Psycho “evolution” The website for the PBS special on evolution “draft” The Final Draft website for scriptwriting software “ridiculous” The Ridiculous Infomercial Review website
So far, Firefox’s rendering of pages has been predictable, but the fact remains that there are some pages out there that can only be properly viewed with Internet Explorer, along with some that I have found render properly with IE and Opera, but not with Firefox (which I would classify as a likely rendering bug in Firefox, rather than a reliance by the site on proprietary IE calls). Coding websites that run exclusively on IE is a travesty of web design and yet one more indictment against Microsoft; offering tools for web development that preclude using another browser goes directly against the design intent of the Internet. However, Firefox’s IEView extension easily allows you to view a page in IE if you want to see how IE would render it, simply by right-clicking on the page and selecting “View This Page in IE”:
But, what about security, since that’s the primary reason I’ve provided for why I left IE. Quite simply, Firefox avoids several fundamental design flaws of IE, in that:
- Firefox is not integrated into Windows, and thus closes holes allowing access to the OS.
- Firefox does not support ActiveX JavaVM or VBScript, three Microsoft proprietary technologies that are responsible for many security holes.
- Firefox does not allow for the invasion of your system by adware and spyware just by visiting a website (exactly what happened to me with IE).
Since I’ve had Firefox, as long as I don’t open IE I remain blissfully free of popup ads and all the varieties of junkware. That in and of itself is a powerful reason for switching browsers; the bonus is that Firefox just also happens to be a better browser in most other ways as well. For security, stability, speed, and pure enjoyability, Firefox wins hands-down over IE.
Those interested in Firefox should note that while quite stable, the current release (as of early July 2004) is still considered a beta “preview” and is pre-1.0 software.