Firefox and Future Dangers: The Open and Closed of It

By Crawford, Walt | Online, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Firefox and Future Dangers: The Open and Closed of It


Crawford, Walt, Online


What the heck is Firefox? A year ago, that was a reasonable question. Six months ago, it would suggest you didn't spend much time online. Now--well, I suppose there's some of you who don't know that Mozilla Firefox is the hottest Internet browser around.

Firefox may be the most successful example of open source software in the personal computer market. I'm not going to write a column about the wonders of open source, partly because I'm not a true believer. A little Web searching will yield more propaganda and advocacy than you'd ever want to read, some of it thoughtful and eloquent.

Instead, I want to consider two related topics: Firefox as an illustration of the benefits of an open, complex, competitive PC marketplace--and the forces working to close the open PC architecture. An open marketplace serves libraries as it serves everyone else; a future of closed and controlled technology has its charms for system administrators and copyright holders but harms everyone else.

OPEN SOFTWARE CHALLENGES MICROSOFT

Firefox is a Web browser.

Yawn.

Who cares about another Web browser?

Internet Explorer (IE) comes with your PC; Safari comes with your Mac. Both work. There's Opera, but the free version annoys you with ads, and both versions have difficulties with too many Web sites. Netscape seems old hat and mostly a sales tool for AOL/Netscape services. I've tried Netscape. I've tried Opera. I always came back to IE because it was faster and more reliable, despite its worrisome vulnerabilities.

Why Firefox?

Firefox is different. It's lean, clean, fast, and surprisingly feature-filled.

At work, I use Firefox 1.01 for 99 percent of all Internet work. The only exception: Onyx, our customer relations software, which is coded so that you can only log in from Internet Explorer.

At home, I have Firefox installed. As soon as I get broadband, I'll use Firefox for 90 percent of my home Internet work. Why 90 percent? Because iNotes, the Web Lotus Notes e-mail client, only runs on Internet Explorer. I check work mail from home. With dialup, once I've checked work mail, it's not worth the trouble to switch browsers. With broadband, I'll do it.

I don't hate IE ... but Firefox seems to work better and should be substantially less vulnerable to attack.

Firefox supports tabs: You can open many different sites simultaneously in different tabs, labeled across the top of the screen. Tabs should be less resource-intensive than multiple windows. Firefox auto-senses RSS feeds: If a site has a feed, there's an RSS logo in Firefox's bottom-right corner, which you can click to activate the feed. It uses Ctrl+ and Ctrl- to change text sizes instead of IE's arbitrary five-level pull-down menu.

Firefox's native security is better than IE's. It comes configured to block unrequested pop-ups. Its default settings for blocking third-party cookies are at least as good as IE6's settings.

What's most interesting about Firefox is what it's not. It's not an "Internet suite" like Netscape. It's a browser, period. You want a mail client? There's a Thunderbird extension (if you don't use Outlook/ Outlook Express). Want to edit Web pages from within your browser? An extension is in beta. Firefox itself is small (less than 7 megabytes), fast, very standards-compliant, and clean.

I like it. So do lots of other people. The logs for Cites & Insights [http:// cites.boisestate.edu/] for the first 2 months of 2005 show Firefox with 13.6 percent of the traffic: the first time anything other than Internet Explorer has ever been higher than 5 percent. (Safari accounts for 1.6 percent.) I've heard that Firefox has passed the 10 percent mark at many other sites. Firefox comes from the Mozilla Foundation, so you should find the Firefox code in Netscape 7.x--but I'd suggest going directly to Firefox [www.mozilla.org/products/ firefox]. …

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