Firefox Moves Farther Ahead of the Hunt

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, December 18, 2005; F07

The browser that finally broke Microsoft's monopoly just got its first major
update. If you haven't switched from Internet Explorer yet, consider Firefox
1.5 your invitation to do so.

This new release (Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X 10.3 or newer, Linux, free at ) looks almost like its predecessor, but it's worth
downloading for that very reason. It incorporates useful improvements
without forcing users to learn anything new.

Most important among them is a security update mechanism that should solve a
common dilemma. The users more likely to stumble across a malicious site are
often least likely to remember to install security updates that would
protect them from the bad site's break-in attempts.

Earlier Firefox releases would notify users of new updates, but in a manner
too easy to overlook. And users who did think to click on that cryptic
red-arrow icon would then have to download a fresh copy of the browser and
sit through the same setup experience as a user installing the program for
the first time. Now, when a new version is available, Firefox 1.5 will
notify you prominently, download just a small updater file and use that to
patch itself.

Better security is one reason many have dumped Internet Explorer for
Firefox, which can't run the Web-hosted ActiveX programs so often used to
hijack Microsoft's browser. But Firefox has needed security patches of its
own to fix vulnerabilities. Its open-source development process, in which
anybody can inspect and edit its programming code, has helped speed those
fixes, and now users should have much less trouble taking advantage of them.

As with previous releases, Firefox 1.5 blocks pop-up ads. These controls are
supposed to block more pop-ups in this version, but I haven't noticed any
real difference. Ads coded to sneak by pop-up blockers seem to be as
obnoxiously present in this version as in the old one. (I am still waiting
to see the companies stupid enough to buy such invasive ads get their just
punishment in the market.)

If security issues lead people to Firefox, tabbed browsing tends to keep
them there. This option allows you to view multiple pages in one window,
switching among them by clicking on tabs. It's ridiculously efficient
compared to keeping separate windows open -- it's much faster to click on a
tab in plain view than to use the Alt-Tab keys to cycle through every open

Firefox 1.5 makes only two changes to its implementation of this concept,
both unobtrusive but helpful. You can rearrange tabs by dragging and
dropping them left and right, and you can click a button in its Options
window to force links that would open in new windows to open in new tabs

That Options window (on a Mac, it's called Preferences) features more subtle
rewriting. It puts tabbed-browsing choices under their own category instead
of filing them under an "Advanced" category and makes many secondary
settings easier to employ. For instance, to delete cookie files set by one
site doesn't require looking through a long list -- just type the site's
name in a search form.

A "Clear Private Data" command will wipe out all the records Firefox keeps
of your browsing -- cookies, saved passwords, cached pages and so on. A
private-browsing option like the one in Apple's Mac-only Safari that
suspends this recording process would have been helpful but isn't offered.

Three other changes can accelerate and enliven everyday browsing. The Back
button now brings you to the last page viewed almost immediately. When
Firefox finds a site that offers an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed of
its content, it puts a clickable icon in the address bar, a more obvious
location than its earlier, bottom-of-the-window notification. And support
for a couple of new Web-design standards called Canvas and SVG brings new
kinds of Web interactivity within reach.

As before, you can run a Google search from the box at the top-right corner
or direct that search to one of a handful of other search sites by choosing
them from a drop-down menu. The find-in-page command remains a marvel of
efficiency, whisking you to matching text on a page as you type a query.
Secure sites are prominently flagged by highlighting the address bar gold
and citing the site's domain name at the bottom of the window, a step that
should make it easier to spot fake phishing sites that don't offer secure

This Firefox release falls short on a few areas, though -- there's no form
auto-fill command to save you from having to type in your address at Web
stores. You can't save an entire page, images and all, in a single archive
file. And you can't easily remove search engines from the list of shortcuts
in Firefox's search bar.

Management of bookmarks is a particular weakness, compared with what could
have been accomplished. Not only do you still have to click on a
"Properties" icon or select a right-click command just to rename a bookmark,
Firefox 1.5 doesn't offer any automatic-organization options like those
provided by most music programs. You can't ask it to tell you what sites you
visit most or least often or at particular times of the day.

With this update, Firefox lengthens its lead over IE and stays ahead of
Netscape (which AOL has turned into a two-headed monster that incorporates
parts of both Firefox and IE) and Mozilla (the too-complex ancestor of
Firefox). The Opera browser is a different case: It's now free and runs
faster and uses less memory than Firefox, but it's also a bit more difficult
to decipher. Safari, meanwhile, fits much better in Mac OS X but fails to
display features in some sites that work fully in Firefox.

Sometime next year, these browsers will face new competition from Microsoft.
The software giant recently renewed its efforts in IE, and it's going about
this work in a remarkably open way. Its programmers are documenting their
work and soliciting input online ( ) and have even
cooperated with other browser developers to standardize some user

The results may be impressive; Microsoft has shown it can do its best work
when it's challenged by tough competitors. But for now, it's time to say
goodbye to IE.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro [EMAIL PROTECTED]

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