NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2009
Mozilla Releases Firefox 3.5 Browser
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

(click to email author)


It is no secret to regular listeners of my weekly radio show (KLVI 560AM 6-7pm Mondays) that I have been a longtime user of the Firefox browser. While Windows may come with Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) installed and an integral part of the operating system, I and millions of other computer users have chosen to use an alternative browser, such as Firefox, to provide features and security lacking in IE. There has been an active war between browsers for market share for several years, led by IE with its deep pockets capable of carrying on its battle though the use of prodigious commercial advertisement, backed by the financial clout of Microsoft. Firefox, from an open source, non-profit organization, Mozilla, lacks the financial capital to compete in the commercial marketplace, but has developed a loyal and expanding user base based on its quality and features, rather than its advertising. Mozilla’s Firefox has been successful at capturing an estimated one-fourth of the browser market from IE, and has spawned competition from other non-Microsoft competitors, such as Google’s Chrome, Apple’s Safari, Opera, and several other browsers, all of which offer features and benefits lacking in IE. While IE, Chrome, and Safari have substantial financial backing behind their respective promotions, Firefox is forced to compete based on its merits and performance, and not the dollars behind it. Due to the competitive nature of the browser business, and the fact that when Microsoft developed IE and announced that it would be a free browser, despite many millions of dollars in development costs, all of the other major browsers now currently available were also provided for free.

Firefox in its earlier versions has been around for several years, and attracted the interest of the computer press pundits who have recognized the superiority of Firefox over the 800 pound gorilla in the room, Microsoft’s IE. What Firefox has lacked in financial capital, it has more than made up with its feisty adherence to innovation and performance. Recently, Mozilla released version 3.5 of Firefox, a substantial update and upgrade to the not-so-old 3.0 series of releases. Over five million copies were downloaded during the first 24 hours of its release. It is available as a free 7.7mb download from getfirefox.com, and available for most contemporary operating systems including XP, Vista, Mac and Linux.

The new version 3.5 of Firefox has some dramatic improvements over the older versions of Firefox, many of which have increased the performance, features, and security advantages of Firefox over IE, and makes Firefox more completive with the advanced features of its competing browsers. One notable improvement in 3.5 is its rendering speed, the time it takes to display web pages being downloaded. One example of dramatic speed improvement is in displaying web pages containing Java, a very common form of coding on web pages today. In comparison testing on an XP machine using different versions of Firefox, 3.5 was about twice as fast as version 3, and 10 times faster than version 2. In comparative tests performed by some of the leading computer magazines, Firefox was much faster than IE in loading a variety of web pages. To be fair, Safari and Chrome were also faster than IE 7 and 8 as well, with IE sometimes being very sluggish in loading and displaying websites by comparison. Firefox 3.5 has improved memory management which minimizes memory leakage, and also uses fewer system resources than IE, still another reason for improved performance.

Firefox 3.5 is very feature rich with security and conveniences that makes it a very attractive alternative to IE. One is the “Awesome Bar”, also known as the address bar, where an intelligent wizard makes it easy to locate websites without typing or knowing the URL (internet address). Simply typing a keyword term in the address bar will cause Firefox to instantly reference the browsing history searching and then displaying web addresses with similar keywords, and then interactively searching the web for popular websites with that key word. The Awesome Bar is intelligent in that it learns about your surfing interests in order to make more relevant recommendations. Of course, if you know the web address, just simply type it in as always, but if you have been there before the auto complete feature will display your potential choices as fast as you can type. If a desired web address is displayed by the Awesome Bar, simply click on it to open the page.

Many of us have developed a large collection of favorites and bookmarks. Firefox 3.5 offers an improved version of its “Tags” feature where terms can be added to a bookmark for rapid sorting and display of appropriate links. For example, if I labeled the bookmark for THEEXAMINER.COM with the tag “news” (there is no limit on the number of tags that may be added to any bookmark), and typed “news” in the address bar, the Examiner link would be among the top placements instantly displayed in the address bar for immediate selection. Adding new links to the bookmark list is a simple one click operation; simply click on the star at the right side of the address bar to create a bookmark with the currently displayed website.

One cute feature in Firefox 3.5 that has been continued from the earlier versions is a built in spell checker. When filling in online forms, blogs, Tweets, webmail, or other forms of text, Firefox will check the spelling of words entered in real-time, and underline any misspelled words with a red dotted line. Simply right clicking on the word will display the correctly spelled recommendations, and another mouse click will replace the erroneous word with the correctly spelled term.

Another useful feature is the tabbed browsing. While other browsers, including IE 8, have tabbed browsing, Firefox 3.5 tabs can be dragged and dropped wherever desired. I have been guilty of closing a tab, only finding later in the session that I want to go back to the now closed tab; Firefox saves closed tabs under the History menu as “Recently Closed Tabs”, where a mouse click reopens the closed tab. A similar benefit is the ability of Firefox to remember where you have been; when closing Firefox, the user is given the choice to remember the open tabs, and automatically reload them the next time Firefox is opened.

Since Firefox is not beholden to any other software company, there is no prejudice in the selection of search engines accessible from the integral search bar. In fact, there are literally hundreds of search options available, many with an integral smart search function that makes recommendations of search terms as they are being typed. The search selection does include not just the typical Google or Yahoo, but also hundreds of other domestic and foreign search engines as well as commercial resources. In addition to Google, Yahoo, and AllTheWeb (my personal favorite), I also have EBay, Amazon, and other shopping sites in my search list where products can be entered in the search box, and the results quickly displayed.

One interesting feature in 3.5, which can be easily selected or disabled at will, is “Location Aware Browsing” where capable websites will provide relevant local information such as restaurants or events based on the current geographical location of the computer. Firefox emphasizes that no personal information is disseminated when using this feature and it can be turned off at will.

One of the top selling points of this free product is the security of the browser. Integral with the browser is an anti-phishing feature which will prominently warn the user if he attempts to connect to a known phishing identity theft site. Firefox also protects against websites containing viruses, Trojans, and malware in their code. Since Firefox runs on top of the operating system, and not as a part of it, Firefox is inherently more secure than IE, and less vulnerable to attack. While no browser is absolutely secure, in penetration testing, Firefox has proven to be more secure than IE. If any serious security vulnerabilities are detected, Firefox is quick to release and distribute software updates, typically much faster than most competing browsers, and almost always faster than IE. Firefox offers an automatic update feature which can download updates as soon as they are released, keeping the browser up to date with the latest security fixes. Firefox 3.5 is totally adequate as downloaded, and includes abundant features. For those who like to customize their browsing experience, Firefox has compiled a catalog of over 6000 plug-ins and add-ons. I use add-ons for a variety of purposes, including downloading and converting YouTube videos, color coding my tabs, and “IE Tabs” which will run IE only websites that require Active-X from inside Firefox, without loading IE.

I strongly recommend Firefox to everyone. It is easy to install, and will happily coexist with IE and other installed browsers, and not interfere with them. Firefox offers an option during installation to non-destructively copy and import favorites (bookmarks), cookies, passwords, and other information from IE, such that Firefox is ready to run and complete as soon as it is installed. If upgrading from an older version of Firefox, the newer version will perform some housekeeping tasks and install itself over the older version while maintaining all bookmarks, passwords, cookies, and other information.

I use IE for less than 5% of my browsing tasks, choosing to use Firefox for almost all other web browsing. Other than the fact that it is already installed on Windows computers, I sometimes find it hard to understand why so many would still use such a slow, vulnerable, and insecure browser as IE, when a reasonably secure and fast browser such as Firefox is available for free. Go ahead and download Firefox right now (getfirefox.com). Play with it for a while, experimenting with its myriad of features unavailable on IE. If you like it, go ahead and make it your default browser (I did). If not, either keep it as a secondary browser, or uninstall it (Add/Remove Programs). Once you try Firefox 3.5, I really do not envision many of you wanting to uninstall it, but I can see many more of you choosing Firefox as your primary browser, rather than the cumbersome IE.

Click here to return to top