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Tool Tips: Firefox
2005, Q1 (July 03, 2007)
By David Coverston, STC Orlando Chapter Secretary

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2005 edition of Memo to Members, the newsletter for STC Orlando, and appears here at the suggestion of Erika Coto, the Editor. See http://www.stc-orlando.org/newsletter/newsltr.asp for the current and archived issues of this newsletter.

In 1995 Microsoft released their Internet Explorer, setting off what came to be known as the "browser wars." A recent headline article on Slate, the Microsoft-owned news site (http://slate.msn.com/id/2103152/), asks the question "Are the browser wars back?" The reason they are asking is that for the first time since 1995 the Internet Explorer is actually losing market share. What they mean by "market share" when talking about free software is that people are using another browser to surf the web. The Mozilla foundation, who brought you the Netscape browser, has spawned yet another contender for market share, Firefox.

If you have become comfortable using Internet Explorer, you may wonder why you should care about another browser, especially since they are both free. I'll start by giving you one good reason: security flaws in Internet Explorer. There are other reasons, but that is the most important.

Here is why IE is a problem — Explorer's ActiveX system lets web sites download and install software onto your computer, sometimes even without your knowledge. If you are very active on the Internet, you've probably had a number of infestations of adware, spyware, and just plain junk that consumes resources on your computer, slowing it down at best. Another plus for Firefox is that it runs independent of the operating system, so you have less exposure to your computer.

Firefox features a popup blocker that you can set to allow certain sites. If you have not yet used a blocker, you will be surprised at how much time you will save. But the really big draw for many users is the tabbed browser feature. Instead of opening multiple copies of Firefox, you can open web pages as tabs in the browser window. Try it, you'll like it.

The Firefox popup blocker
Figure 1. The Firefox popup blocker.

The Firefox tab interface
Figure 2. The Firefox tab interface.

Firefox is currently a 4.7 MB download available from http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/. Download the Firefox Setup 1.0.exe file and double-click it to install. The installation is straightforward, and it imports your bookmarks from IE.

The developers have taken a lightweight approach to their product, so there is a certain minimal functionality with the default installation. This is by design, so that you can install other features, called extensions, to add functions that you want. Choosing Tools > Extensions opens the Extensions dialog box that shows you what extensions you have installed. It also has a link to a site where you can add more extensions. After installing the browser, you'll also need to reinstall plug-ins for some files like Flash, PDF, and Java. To see what you have installed choose Tools > Options > Downloads and then the Plug-Ins button. You can get more info on extensions, plug-ins and themes at https://addons.update.mozilla.org/?application=firefox.

The Extensions dialog box.
Figure 3. The Extensions dialog box.

Firefox features a customizable search toolbar. Google, Yahoo, and eBay are installed by default, but you can add more. Firefox also is an RSS reader, which is useful for bloggers and news junkies.

The Firefox search drop-down.
Figure 4. The Firefox search drop-down.

The down side of Firefox is that some websites require IE functions and will not work with Firefox. My online banking website is one example. As you might have guessed, Microsoft requires its browser to access its Windows Update and Office Update services, so you can't totally abandon IE.
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