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Mozilla Firefox


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Introduction to Firefox

A Web browser is sort of like the tires on your car. You don't really give them much daily thought, but without them, you're not going anywhere. The second something goes wrong, you definitely notice.

Chances are, you're reading this article on Internet Explorer. It's the browser that comes already installed on Windows operating systems; most people use Windows, and most Windows users don't give a second thought to which browser they're using. In fact, many people aren't aware that they have an option at all.

Options are out there, however -- some people call them "alternative browsers," and one of them has been steadily chipping away at Internet Explorer's dominance. It's called Firefox. From its origins as an offshoot of the once popular Netscape browser, Firefox is building a growing legion of dedicated users who spread their enthusiasm by word of mouth (or blog).

In this article, we'll find out what makes Firefox different, what it can do and what effect an open-source browser might have on the Internet landscape.

The Basics

The easiest way to learn about Firefox is to go ahead and download it (it's free).

You can find it at the official site: http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/.

If you're hesitant to install and learn to use a new program, rest assured that Firefox looks and acts very similar to Internet Explorer and most other Web browsers. There's even a feature for IE users that lists the expressions you're familiar with and tells you the corresponding Firefox names for those functions.

At the top of the screen, you'll find a bar for typing in Web addresses, a small search panel and a row of buttons -- the typical tools for common Web-surfing activities.

Forward, back, home, reload and stop can all be found in this basic setup. These buttons, like just about everything else in Firefox, are fully customizable. You can rearrange them, get rid of some of them or add new ones.

Mozilla Firefox Displaying Learn.com Home page

Now, if Firefox is so similar to Internet Explorer, why bother switching? There are quite a few reasons, but the most important for many users is security.

There is much debate over the security of Web browsers, stemming mainly from Internet Explorer's vulnerability as a common target for hackers and virus writers. Microsoft regularly releases patches and updates to fix security holes in Internet Explorer that might allow someone to install malicious software or steal information from a computer. Firefox has not been the focus of hackers so far, but that doesn't mean it's inherently safer.

For now, Firefox is enjoying a reprieve from viruses and hackers primarily because, compared to the widespread use of Internet Explorer, it is relatively small-time. Hackers haven't bothered exploiting Firefox yet, because the low yield means it wouldn't be worth their efforts. If Firefox ever achieves dominance among Web browsers, that can be expected to change. See the Firefox Security section to learn more.

Features of Firefox

Firefox comes with a few useful features that set it apart from Internet Explorer 6 -- so useful, in fact, that Microsoft included a lot of them in Internet Explorer 7 (released in October 2006). One of the most noticeable is tabbed browsing.

If you are browsing in Internet Explorer 6, and you want to visit a new Web site while keeping your current one open, you have to open a completely new browser window. Intensive Web surfing can result in browser windows cluttering up your taskbar and dragging on system resources.

Firefox solves that by allowing sites to open in separate tabs within the same browser window. Instead of switching between browser windows, a user can change between two or more different sites by clicking on the tabs that appear just below the toolbar in Firefox.

Firefox features "tabbed browsing".

You can open a new, blank tab from a menu or by clicking on the "New Tab" button that you can add to the toolbar.

Firefox also has a built-in pop-up blocker. This prevents annoying ads from popping up in front of the browser window. You can configure it to let you know when pop-ups are blocked and to allow certain pop-ups from certain sites. This lets you enable pop-ups that are useful windows as opposed to unwanted ads.

One feature of Firefox that is vital to some users is that it is a cross-platform application. That means that Firefox works under several different operating systems, not just Windows. For now, all versions of Windows from 98 and up are supported (as well as Windows 95, though it's a bit more difficult), along with Mac OS X and Linux.

There's another notable Firefox feature that might be the coolest. It's like when someone asks you what you'd wish for if you could only have one wish, and you say, "I'd wish for unlimited wishes." Firefox extensions mean the browser has an almost unlimited number of features, with new ones being created every day. Still, the program remains fairly small, because users only add the extensions they want to use.

All of the extensions that have been added to Firefox show up in the Extensions Manager, which allows them to be configured or uninstalled easily.

Junior high school students probably don't need stock market tickers, while people doing serious research don't necessarily need an MP3 player built into their browser. If there's a feature from another browser that you really like, chances are someone has made an extension so that it can be included in Firefox.

Where do all these extensions come from? They're a product of Firefox's open source nature (). Not only is the code to Firefox available for examination and use, but Firefox provides developer tools for free to anyone who wants to create an extension.

Firefox Extensions

Firefox extensions range from the indispensable (ad blocking) to the utterly silly (an extension that changes the Options menu's definition of "Cookies" from a technical explanation to "Cookies are delicious delicacies"). Here are a few of the more notable extensions.

• Themes - Themes are technically a separate category from extensions, but they all do the same thing -- they change how Firefox looks. There are a few dozen themes to choose from on the official Firefox site. If you want your browser to look like it's made out of wood or have big, brightly colored icons or look sleek and futuristic, there's a theme for you. You can change it every day if you want to.

• Dictionary Search - This extension lets you select any word in the text of a Web site, right click and select "Search Dictionary" from the menu. Then, a new tab opens with an Internet dictionary's definition of the selected word.

• Gestures - Mouse gesturing is a feature taken from another alternative browser, Opera. When this extension is installed, users can execute various common Web surfing commands by holding down the right mouse button and "gesturing" in a certain direction with the mouse. A gesture to the left takes you back one page, while a gesture to the right takes you one page forward. You can customize the gestures and combine them (a down-then-left gesture minimizes the browser window, for example).

• FoxyTunes - This extension places a small control panel on the Firefox toolbar, allowing users to control any media player software from within the browser.

FoxyTunes and ForecastFox

• ForecastFox - This popular extension puts a short-range weather forecast in your toolbar. You can select your location (or several different ones), how many days you want in the forecast and whether you want only daytime forecasts or both days and nights.

• RadialContext - Most browsers give you a drop-down menu of options when you right-click on a Web site. The RadialContext extension livens this up by giving you a small dial of graphical options (sort of like the controls on your car stereo) instead of that plain text menu.

• Ad Block - There are several different ad-blocking extensions available in addition to the pop-up blocking Firefox has built-in. These extensions allow users to block some or all banner ads and other advertisements that appear on Web pages.

Some use a list of known ad servers or block images from servers with the words "banner" or "adserver" in the domain name. Others display ads normally, but if a user finds a particular ad exceptionally annoying or obtrusive, he or she can right-click on it and choose to remove it in the resulting drop-down menu.

Future of Firefox

The origins of Firefox can be traced directly to Netscape, a company whose Web browser, Netscape Navigator, was the dominant browser before Microsoft developed Internet Explorer. The internal company name for the browser was Mozilla.

Eventually, Netscape released the source code for Navigator under an open source license, meaning anyone could see and use the code. A non-profit group was set up to direct the development of browsers using this code. This group became the Mozilla Foundation in 2003.

However, Firefox is not the browser the Mozilla group would have released if everything had gone as planned. Like Netscape Navigator before it, the Mozilla software was becoming bigger and bigger as more features were added in -- a problem in software development known as "feature creep" or "bloat."

Enter Blake Ross, a computer enthusiast who first started helping out the Mozilla project as a hobby when he was 14. Instead of accepting feature creep, Ross decided to start developing his own Mozilla-based browser, focusing on a streamlined and simple version. Software developer Dave Hyatt also played a major role. Ross was joined by Ben Goodger in 2003, and development progressed rapidly from that point.

fix problems), it was already generating a healthy buzz among tech-savvy Web surfers. In just four months after the official release on November 9, 2004, an estimated 23 million people downloaded Firefox. Web tracker OneStat.com reported on November 22, 2004, that Internet Explorer's share of Web browser use had dropped five percent since May of that year.

Firefox had a user percentage of 4.5 percent. Current estimates (as of October 2006) have Firefox's market share in the area of 11 to 12 percent. Its popularity is growing, but it has a long way to go before it really challenges Internet Explorer as the main browser on the 'Net.

Does Firefox mean anything more than another option for users fed up with what they perceive as slow development and rampant security problems with Internet Explorer? It might. As Firefox grows in popularity, Microsoft feels more pressure to compete with added features of its own.

In a move that industry analysts attribute to Firefox's success (but Microsoft attributes to IE6 security risks), Microsoft has released Internet Explorer 7 separately from the newest version of the Windows operating system, Windows Vista, which is scheduled to hit the market sometime in 2007.

If Firefox reaches a certain critical mass of popularity (probably around 30 or 40 percent), it will start getting a lot more attention, and not all of it welcome. The efforts of hackers focusing on the upstart browser could cause security problems.

The result might be an ongoing, ever-escalating arms race as programmers race to patch security holes and hackers find new ones -- much like the current situation with Internet Explorer. Higher usage rates will also remove one of the "features" of Firefox that appeals to many users -- it's something different.

The fact that Firefox is based on open source code also has implications. Not only is the program free to download and use, but also the code is freely available -- to look at, develop independently and release in an altered form.

It is likely that some developers will grow dissatisfied with the direction of Firefox and splinter off to form their own version. Already, there are alternate builds of Firefox available, though they lack the stability of the official release.

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