There’s been a lot of hype surrounding the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox browser, and eWEEK Labs’ tests of Version 1.0, released today, show the hype is well-deserved.
During tests, we found Firefox 1.0 to be extremely intuitive, with probably the most minimal learning curve imaginable. In addition, the Linux and Mac OS X versions of Firefox are functionally identical to those on Windows, making Firefox an excellent cross-platform solution.
Given the unprecedented pickup of Firefox in beta form, many people may be surprised that Firefox hasn’t already shipped. In fact, Firefox has pulled off the extremely rare feat of gaining market share while still in beta—market share that came directly from Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer.
Firefox, which is freely downloadable from www.mozilla.org, was designed to compete directly with IE. When the two browsers are compared head-to-head, with only features and capabilities taken into account, Firefox is the easy winner. With its streamlined interface and wealth of navigational aids, Firefox makes IE look every inch the old and static artifact it has become. In fact, as we see it, IE has only two advantages over Firefox: IE comes preinstalled on Windows systems so most users are familiar with it, and many Web sites and enterprise applications are coded specifically for Internet Explorer as opposed to Web standards (more on that later).
When launching the Firefox browser, users will instantly notice its clean and uncluttered interface and familiar Web navigation icons. Digging deeper, users will find that Firefox includes such useful tools as the tabbed browsing capabilities found in Opera, Safari and Firefox’s cousin browser, Mozilla.
Firefox’s pop-up blocking features worked well in tests, providing feedback in a small status bar when a pop-up was blocked and making it possible to quickly unblock a site from which we might actually wish to get pop-ups. We also really liked the “find in page” features in Firefox, which are the best we’ve seen in any browser. Rather than launching a separate window for the find command, as most browsers do, a small tab bar is launched at the bottom of Firefox—a much more user-friendly method.
Firefox also does a pretty good job of integrating RSS news feeds in a way that makes sense for a browser rather than the standard e-mail client metaphor that most programs use. Whenever we loaded a Web page that had RSS feeds available, Firefox would show a small feed icon in the bottom right-hand corner. By clicking this icon, we could choose to add the feed and then access it from our Bookmark menu.
When it comes to feature-based competition, Firefox’s closest rival is probably the Mozilla browser suite. Mozilla has some browser features not found in Firefox, such as FTP uploads and page translations, not to mention built-in mail and editor features.
In the past, there have been complaints that Mozilla made it difficult for novice users to find and load necessary plug-ins. Firefox addresses this with the new Plugin Finder Service. When we went to a Web site that required a plug-in we didn’t have, a bar appeared at the top of the browser stating that additional plug-ins were required. When we clicked the Install Missing Plugins button, Firefox found the needed plug-in and walked us through installation.
This approach is sound, but it didn’t always work for us (especially with Windows 98). In addition, we’d like to see an upfront installation option that would scan other browsers installed on a user’s machine and find the same plug-ins those browsers use.
Next page: Firefox at work.
Anyone who has the option should take Firefox for a ride, especially given its nonintrusive installation. Corporate users may have less freedom to give it a try, but, given IE’s security problems and Firefox’s excellent Web standards support, we recommend that IT managers consider deploying it or at least supporting it as an option.
Given the small size and simple design of Firefox, IT managers should find it fairly easy to deploy using standard application management tools. Still, to be truly corporate-friendly, Firefox will need to include features that will help companies customize and deploy the browser—something along the lines of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Administration Kit.
Firefox does do a good job of easing the transition from IE, including a “For Internet Explorer Users” choice in the help menu that breaks down the differences between the two browsers and helps with migration.
Still, this won’t help with one problem—namely, sites that work only with Internet Explorer.
During tests of Version 1.0 and pre-release versions of Firefox, we ran into very few sites that didn’t work well with the browser. We mostly saw issues with online banking and internal enterprise applications, whose developers often use IE-specific features to provide rich application behavior rather than using standards-based methods to achieve the same behaviors.
Top-down guidance for enterprise developers and customer-driven pressure on those who maintain externally-facing Web sites, along with a continued slide in IE’s market share, are the only signals likely to change that situation as long as IE is perceived to be both universally available and the default choice of the majority of users.
We don’t consider this a criticism of Firefox, since the browser has excellent Web standards support. We believe that sites should be tested by their developers for conformance with Web standards, rather than being tested against IE and letting other browsers take their chances. Unfortunately, it’s also necessary for prudent users to keep their IE installations up-to-date with security patches, until they no longer find themselves forced to use IE for full-featured access to sites on which they depend.
Indeed, much of IE’s lost market share can be attributed to the security problems that have constantly plagued the browser.
Firefox is not immune to viruses and security problems, and in fact has had some of its own (although they were quickly identified and fixed). All browsers will have some kind of security vulnerabilities, but eWEEK Labs feels that, until Microsoft stops tying IE so tightly into the Windows operating system, alternative browsers will always provide better security.
eWEEK Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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