Summary: Mozilla Firefox 1.0 preview release came out yesterday but Jakub's been using the browser and its companion Thunderbird email client for a few months now. He gives us the inside scoop on the applications, how they came about and what they might mean for the future.
Dead Man’s Hand
Mozilla has had a long and storied history. Well, no, that’s a lie. Mozilla is in fact only about 6 years old as of this writing, but judging solely by its product repertoire, it has a long life ahead of it.
Firefox is a free community project based off Mozilla. It’s light, it’s slim and it’s fast - a mere 5MB to download. Mozilla itself is a 12MB download. The service pack for IE6 is 12MB. I haven’t found a download for it myself, and it comes installed on Windows XP so it’s difficult to judge. Having loaded FiringSquad, each has a memory footprint of approximately ~27MB. On Blue’s News, IE balloons to just over 31MB while Firefox weighs in just short of 27MB again. This is before the installation of the Google toolbar on IE.
Feature-wise, Firefox is just as if not more complete than IE. It comes with its own popup blocker and Google search. The Google search is just as effective as the Google toolbar, while the popup blocker is absolutely perfect. I have not seen a single popup while using Firefox for over 6 months now. In fact, the weekly Spybot scans come up quite light compared to those times when IE was my dominant browser.
Firefox is still not as good as IE at loading text first before worrying about the images, but it is certainly as fast as loading whole webpages. Moreover, in these broadband days, browser speed simply doesn’t matter as much any more. I had to actively look to see what got loaded first on Shack, Blue’s or FiringSquad, and then it took double or even triple-checking to make sure.
However, I didn’t change to Firefox for any of these reasons though I was made aware of Firefox’s advantages for quite a while. Really, what’s a couple of megabytes memory footprint when most people have at least half a gig of RAM? A popup or two isn’t going to ruin my day either.
No, what eventually had me switch to Firefox were the numerous security exploits available to IE. Now I’m as experienced an old hand at the internet as there are. I know not to visit .box.sk or a porn site without cranking up the security settings and turning cookies off. However, it got tiresome downloading update after update and fix after fix, and then spotting the occasional exploit with a malware scanner or virus scan – knowing I missed one of a dozen patches for IE in the last year.
I suppose Service Pack 2 fixed most, if not all of these outstanding issues. I’m also not a dreamy-eyed idealist who assumes that because Firefox was made by honest, hard-working communists… er… open-sourcers working for no pay, that it’s automatically a safer and more secure application. Fact of the matter is, most likely the reason I don’t have any trouble with Firefox is that it simply isn’t a big target, and the project is small and agile enough to respond to any generic threats that threaten both it and IE. However, none of that changes the fact that my computer has fewer troubles with Firefox than Internet Explorer.
Yes, there are sites that will not load properly, or even at all, with Firefox. For the most part however, these are few and far between. One of these is the login/launch game option in World War 2 Online. Furthermore, these bugs are few and far between compared to the annoyances IE has put me through. One of the most annoying is the drop-down history menu in the URL bar that will freeze IE if there are too many items there, another is the inability of Explorer to remember logins and passwords to certain sites. Firefox does away with both issues, it’ll even remember your PayPal login – if you let it (we wouldn’t recommend that -ed.)
Having tried Firefox, I must say that Microsoft has a lot to do in order to sway me back. First on the list are the security issues, but those would only level the playing field. As far as features go, Microsoft is now in the unenviable position of trying to woo the converted – it has to offer something extra. This will be an especially difficult task, given the almost unwarranted number of plug-ins and options available for Firefox.
Unfortunately, these extensions break with what seems to be every new release of the browser. We hope this is fixed now that it is feature-locked in version 1.0, but suspect it may not be the case. 1.0 does have some nifty improvements over the predecessor, like Live Bookmarks (think: RSS), but those with highly customized versions of their older browser might want to hang onto that for a while, at least until version 1.0 becomes final.
The gap between Outlook and its little brother Outlook Express has since broadened into a chasm worthy of the Grand Canyon, but Thunderbird straddles the middle ground nicely. It does not have all the funky features of Outlook, such as being able to compose fancy emails in Word or setting up ‘reminder notes’, but it is a vastly superior mail client.
For starters, it deals with multiple email accounts much better. Whereas Outlook permits multiple accounts, it uses one single Inbox and then forces the user to rely on its unreliable filters to move messages into the proper new folder. This is needlessly complex and annoying, and I know of few people with but a single email account. Being a small program, Thunderbird feels a lot crisper. These are differences of a tenth of a second in loading times, but for the purposes of human perception, it feels a lot crisper. Think of how laggy mouse control was a major irritation in Deus Ex: Invisible War, and you have the right idea.
That being said, Thunderbird suffers more from an unfamiliar interface than Firefox does. Most email clients, by default, put the reply on top of the quoted text, but Thunderbird is initially set to replying below. Fixing this was more difficult than one would imagine, since the option isn’t under the menu you’d expect. Rather than being under Tools -> Options and then the Composition or Advanced sub-menus, quote settings are under Tools -> Account Settings. Each account can be individually customized from here, but we’re still baffled as to why Account Settings has the “Composition & Addressing” sub-menu when Tools -> Options already has a Composition category of its own.
The success of Firefox, and by default, of Mozilla itself, is really surprising. The project suffered several disastrous failures – from Netscape’s collapse, through the beta Mozilla-Netscape release under AOL, AOL shutting down the division before later recreating it as a separate foundation – few would have believed in the project after all that.
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