Explore the Internet in a Whole New Way

For a long time now Microsoft's Internet Explorer has ruled as 'King of Internet browsers'. Like many of Microsoft's products an initially brutal marketing campaign pushed Internet Explorer into the mainstream's consciousness and from then on it was the logical, default choice. It's free with the operating system, works well, loads any page and is easy to use. Other web browsers soon faded into obscurity and sometimes even died in the shadow of the new king of the pack. Netscape Navigator, the former 'King of the browsers', has now ceased commercial operations and has been taken over by the fan base. Opera is fading into obscurity and Mozilla was facing a similar fate, until recently.

Mozilla Firefox (formerly known as Firebird) is probably the largest threat that IE has faced in recent times. Currently, according to http://www.w3schools.com, IE is the browser used by 69.9% of Internet users and Firefox is used by 19.1%. This might not seem like much, but according to http://www.nua.ie/surveys/how_many_online/ an educated guess at the number of people that use the Internet is somewhere around 605,600,000 users (or was in 2002, the number will have increased substantially by now). That means that (after some erroneous math) a rough stab at guessing the number of people using Firefox is probably over 115,064,000, which isn't a bad user base at all.

When a friend of mine from university first tried to convince me to switch to Firefox I wasn't particularly interested. Basically, IE has done everything that I've wanted in a web browser. He went on at great lengths about the security aspects, the in-built popup blockers, download managers and so on, but I'd spent a fairly large amount of time and money on anti-virus programs, firewalls, spyware removers, and my browser was secure enough. I also have a download manager that I'm very happy with and refuse to change from. After much cajoling I finally agreed to try this newfangled software. I'm glad I did too, because now I have no desire to go back.

Firefox is very easy to install and use. There's nothing complicated, you simply download (for free) and run the install file and then when you run the browser for the first time you get presented with the option of importing your IE favourites (a nice feature, with the click of a button everything is moved across to ease your transition) and also the option of making Firefox your default browser. My initial reaction was fairly apathetic; Firefox seemed pretty much the same as IE and in essence, it is. It has all the basic features of IE, but then I discovered it adds so much more.

The first feature to really grab me is the tabbed browsing. Many alternative browsers and even IE plugins support tabbed browsing (where the new pages can be opened in a tab in the one window, instead of filling the task bar with buttons) but Firefox seems to make it so easy and useful. All you do is click a link with the middle button on your mouse (most newer mice have three buttons, the third often being placed under the scroll wheel) and a new tab opens up containing the page requested. Middle clicking on any tab in the window will close it, without having to actually go to the tab and click close. Ctrl-T will open a new blank tab, and Ctrl-Tab will cycle through them (similar in fashion to Alt-Tab cycling through the open programs). What this all leads to is a much neater Internet experience, with you being able to group certain pages into browser windows, leaving the start bar much cleaner and easier to navigate.

The next feature that caught my attention was the search bar built into the browser. It's small, sleek and simple, built into the right-hand side of the main toolbar beside the address box. You can add many different sites to the search bar and then select the site you wish to search from a drop-down menu. Then it's simply a matter of typing your query in and hitting enter to be taken directly to that page and your search results. This makes searching Ebay, Google, Internet Movie DataBase, Amazon etc. very quick and easy as you can simply type in the desired search criteria as you think of it and get the results back fast. You can get search bar plugins for IE but they tend to take up lots of room, contain ads, and you can usually only have one site per search bar.

There are more features than I could write about here but I will tell you that Firefox has impressed me greatly. Browser hijacking: the act of a malicious website script changing your homepage or search page (particularly common on IE, sites will change your default search page so that every time you type an address into your address bar their site gets a hit) is now a thing of the past (at least until someone gets vicious enough to work out backdoors in Firefox, an unlikely event for at least a little while given the massive market share still held by IE). Since changing over I have received substantially fewer attack notices from my Firewall. Sites load quickly, and if you get an address wrong you don't have to wait for a page to load, you just quickly get a message informing you that the site doesn't exist. Then there are the extensions that can be downloaded to add all sorts of new features to the browser.

The only downside that I have found is the fact that because IE is the dominant web browser, some websites are coded in such a way that they don't work properly on other browsers. These sites are few and far between, but occasionally you will still need to fire up IE to view a page. The infrequency of this occurring is enough that it doesn't annoy me too much, but it will be nice when everything works 100%.

At the end of the day, it's probably not a vital switch. Both programs suffice in allowing you to plug in and explore the vast world of the Internet with ease and accuracy. However, it's worth a look though because what starts off initially as "I have no real reason to change back" quickly becomes "I am never going back". So, as the official Firefox website encourages, "Rediscover the web".

Daniel Punch - M6.Net
Daniel Punch is a university student always looking to overthrow the man and support the underdog, provided it doesn't actually cost him anything.

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