Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Firefox Still Kicks Bottom

Okay so I have been meaning to do a follow-up of my Firefox post for a while now, but with moving to a new country and into an area that has over 20 pubs within staggering distance of my front door the motivation to write web log entries went out the window... Anyway looks like I might be able to finish a few so here is a follow up to my firefox post (Microsoft and the Fox of Fire) which garnered a few comments...

First of all I had a couple of comments on the adoption rates of Firefox and that IE was still a winner in the usages stakes... Well of course it is! In fact this proves how good a product FF really is in that it has taken a bite out of the IE market at all. You see it goes like this: Joe Average goes out and buys a new PC (like me.... check this bad boy out: the HP zd8398ea, a desktop replacement more powerful than any desktop I have ever had!), it comes with Windows XP and of course IE6 pre installed. So most folk get the machine home, turn it on, test out all the funky screen savers, cant figure out why wireless doesn’t work and go back to watching Coronation St... Seriously your average punter will get his or her Windows XP pre-install and start browsing the net via IE and have a perfectly fine web experience without ever feeling the need to change to Firefox. Which is fine... So of course this leads to far more IE browsers on the net that any other.

Two points:

1.) That doesn’t necessarily mean IE is better, just convenient
2.) Isn’t it amazing that enough average punters have switched to FF and stayed there to make a dent in the IE browser share.

I think it is significant when something breaks through the convenience and laziness barrier of the average person. I am sure there is a marketing word for it, but I don’t know what it is so I'll just say that Firefox seems to have been able to draw enough Coro watchers in to have affected a change in the market place.

So much so that PC mag selected it as product of the year for 2005.

Why is that? Well as I said before Firefox is cleaner, faster, easier to extend to you liking has features the IE doesn’t (tabs tabs tabs... Ok so you can bolt on some clunky add-ons that give IE tabs, but do you really want to make that thing any slower? Or you can get a hacked up browser that uses the IE engine and gives you tabs, but why? Just use Firefox!).

Before I address what I mean by faster easier etc etc. I couldn’t explain what I meant by 'cleaner' in a GUI sense very well... So I won’t try to hard here, because there is a guy who can do a much better job. Scott Berkun was an IE GUI designer who switched to Firefox, he wrote this blog entry about why. (the rest of his blog is a very interesting read as well). This pretty much is exactly what I was trying to get at in my first poor attempt. Point 3 sums up the GUI nicely. I'm not a GUI designer so I cant articulate it as well as others might, but FireFox is just a lot crisper than IE, that’s about the best way I can put it! I think also the crisp and snappy interface adds a lot to the whole appearance of speed and ease of use of the app, it can be something of a psychological thing, but it counts for a lot in my opinion.

Faster? Yes... I mean I have no hard science to present here, but I have run Firefox on everything from a P2 233 to my current P4 3.4Ghz monster and Firefox performs remarkably similarly on each for a general web session using multiple tabs. IE on the other hand creaks under the strain on anything less than a P3 when you power surf like I tend to! Again I have no hard science to back this up but experience has taught me and common sense says that if you use a piece of software that was engineered to be fast, lean and mean and is still being improved (to this day!) over something that came out 4 years ago now and has had not real significant changes... well the new slicker model is likely to have the edge and Firefox does. I will however say this, FireFox still seems to suffer an issue I found when I first started using it. That is, if you leave it running for a long time with multiple tabs open, very occasionally it will go mental and consume 100% of your CPU. IE has never done this unless some weird ActiveX thing takes over. I do have a conspiracy theory about non-MS apps running on Windows, but now is not the time... Needless to say FireFox is not perfect, but I'll just say that it has less flaws than IE.

How is it easier to extend? Again I have to profess a lack of knowledge about extending IE's feature set with little applets and stuff, so again I'll fall back on experience here... I ran IE for years and years, when there was no real reason to go to the effort and hassle of installing Netscape or the likes. In that time I never once found a tool or hack that improved IE or did anything over and above some eye candy mods and perhaps the odd download manager. Firefox on the other hand has a wealth of extensions that really do improve the browser experience and deliver enough "good stuff" that they warrant the time to install them.
Now "improve" is the key word here and I use it carefully... You see, the counter argument I can hear coming at me now is "Ah! so you need to add a bunch of extension onto Firefox to make it work properly!". Well yes and no... I love the fact that Firefox comes out of the box lean and mean with a core set of features that doesn’t bloat the browser out such that it runs slower than molasses. But I also love the fact that you can tweak and extend individual components to your liking and add neat little tools that improve the experience where needed. So by way of example, here are the extensions I always load on my Firefox installs that make the browser suit my needs:

    • Tabbrowser Preferences - Provides tweaks for the way tabs work so I can configure the behaviour a bit more to my liking.
    • StumbleUpon - The best way to experience the web when you just want to surf, I wrote a little piece about this earlier. This a toy, but a very cool one none the less!
    • DownloadManager Tweak - The Firefox download manager is probably the worst bit of the browser, so a tweak to improve it is a good thing. This sums up the whole idea around Firefox and extensions, there is always something out there to improve something not to your liking. This tweak just tidies up a few things that aren’t to flash, like the ability to clean up the list of downloads better and a few other nice to haves.
    • Google Toolbar - Self explanatory really. although the built in Firefox search textbox is fine, the google toolbar does a few little extra's that are nice. Like in page highlighting and access to the entire google suit.
    • del.icio.us Plugin - Social book marking rocks. I didnt know why till I started using it and I will explain it in another post later. I use del.icio.us to store my bookmarks online so I can access them wherever I am. Its a cool thing and this plugin integrates the functionality nicely into Firefox.
    • Session Saver - This is a good and bad one, I arent sure if I like it or not. It does what Opera does and preserves your session after you exit the browser. I like it, but it does slow down the start-up a wee bit which can be a pain.
    • IE Tab - This one is pure fiendish genius! It allows you to open a tab which uses an embedded IE browser. No more switching to IE when you need to browse MSDN properly! Again this is a curse and a blessing as it seems quite slow, but for those times when you need to open a poxy page that only works with IE (not many around these days!) this can save a lot of hassle.
    • Forcastfox - Another toy, but I like it. Pops up weather forecasts preiodically and puts a weather radar and 3 day forecast in your status bar. I tend to steer clear of extensions that aren’t strictly browser related, but this one I kind of like so I tend to put it on for fun. It doesn’t slow things down or get in my way at all so it stays.
    • Sort Bookmarks - Bookmarks are another weak point of Firefox in my opinion. So this little tool allows me to sort them easily. Again a tweak for something lacking in the core product. Great!

So there you go. The list above makes my Firefox experience complete. Mostly... I still dont like the way bookmarks work! However to further illustrate my point about how cool extensions are, all of the extensions are written in javascript using Firefox's chrome object model. So it is very easy to get at the guts of an extension and tweak it or write your own... So this is what I am trying to do. I mentioned I use del.icio.us to do my book marking, well there is an extension called Foxylicious by a dude called Dietrich Ayala which is very cool. It takes your del.icio.us page and imports it into your Firefox bookmarks folder and keeps it updated. Nice idea and works very well. However in Dietrich's latest version I don't like the way it organises the bookmarks (just a personal preference thing.) so rather than abandon all hope and ditch it, I have begun to hack up a version that has an option to organise my tagged bookmarks the way I like them. Its slow going because I don't know much about Chrome yet or the nitty gritty of javascript, but I am learning as I go with the (help of the excellent mozdev site) and will have a passable extension when I am done. (Detrich, if you read this, which I doubt, I'll pass a copy with my bits in it along as soon as I am proud enough of my code to do so! Thanks for the awesome extension in the meantime).

Without digressing further, I hope I have illustrated more fully why I feel Firefox is a gem of an application and should be on the top of every internet users "must install" list. Now with the Opera browser also being free (although not open source) there is even more choice other than IE. Which is a good thing! And with my initial glances at the IE7 beta, MS still have a way to go yet to come close to Firefox..

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