NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, August 2011
Browser Wars Intensify with Release of Firefox 5
By Ira Wilsker, Radio Show Host,
Columnist, College Professor and deputy sheriff
(click to email author)


Last week I wrote about Google's Chrome 12 being released, and heating up the war between the browsers. In that column I mentioned how one prominent computer columnist was publically chastised for writing about the "recent" release of Firefox 5, while it was still officially in beta (pre-release version) at that time. One thing constant about the computer industry is the rapidity of change, and the browser wars are but one evidence of that fast evolution. In the brief period between my writing last week's column, and its publication, Firefox did officially release version 5.

I have made it no secret in this column that Firefox has been my primary browser of choice. I have other browsers on my main computer (IE 9, Safari, Opera, Chrome 12), but by my choice, I use Firefox for almost all of my internet browsing. I was somewhat chagrined when I saw that Firefox 5 was released, considering that Firefox 4 was released only about three months earlier. Being a loyal Firefox user, I downloaded and installed Firefox 5. While my first impression was "it looks the same", I quickly found that version 5 incorporated many improvements over version 4. As with previous versions of Firefox, the new version 5 will run on PC's with Windows XP, Vista, or XP, as well as on computers with MAC OS X or Linux. There is also a mobile version of Firefox that will run on Android phones (2.0 and above) and the Nokia N900, as well as IPhones. For those who may use Firefox on different platforms, Firefox offers the ability to seamlessly and securely synchronize (sync) bookmarks and other features between the different devices. As with almost all other browsers, Firefox 5 is free, and may be used by anyone without restriction or any fees.

One of the primary concerns of computer users is speed, and Firefox 5 is among the fastest loading, and at rendering (displaying) web pages. Without getting too technical, Firefox 5 has implemented some substantial performance improvements over version 4, as well as many of its competitors. With much of the web utilizing some form of Java and Java scripting, Firefox 5 has implemented a new JägerMonkey JavaScript engine, which is possibly the fastest Java engine in the industry, and this speed is reflected in the rapidity of loading and displaying web pages. Most computers of recent vintage offer some form of hardware acceleration to speed the display of images, video, and other web content, and Firefox 5 can explicitly take advantage of these latest graphics systems.

One of the frustrations that many internet users encounter is browser crashes, when the browser suddenly locks up, shuts down, or displays other undesired bizarre behavior. One of the most common causes of browser crashes is due to problems with common plug-ins, such as Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, or Microsoft Silverlight. With Firefox 5, if a plug-in crashes or freezes, it is only that open tab that crashes, the other tabs in the browser will be unaffected, and Firefox 5 will continue to operate smoothly. If the user reloads the crashed page, it will likely load quickly, and probably run.

Ease of use has been a competitive feature among browsers as they have evolved, and Firefox 5 obliges with the latest version of its "Awesome Bar", also commonly called the address bar or location bar; this is where the user types the URL (internet address) of the desired web page. In Firefox 5, the Awesome Bar is intelligent as it learns the users' preferences over time. By using the data in the browsing history, bookmarks, and other tabs, the Awesome Bar auto-completes the address as it is being typed, displaying likely matches. If a displayed match is desired, it can be clicked to load the web page, without the need to continue typing the URL. The user has complete control over the contents of the Awesome Bar using the privacy and security settings. Unless explicitly selected, new pages are displayed in a tab, rather than a new window, which speeds the rendering process, and saves on system resources because multiple copies of the browser need not be loaded, unlike some older browsers which always open new windows. Another performance improvement is "App Tabs", where frequently accessed websites, such as web mail, can be kept open and instantly accessed by an "App Tab" (icon), without taking up all of the space on the normal tab bar. An App Tab can be created by simply right clicking on a desired tab, and selecting the "Pin as App Tab" from the menu. Right clicking an App Tab will give the user the option to unpin the App Tab, and convert it to a normal tab.

Since web browsers have become a primary target of hackers, browser security may be a paramount concern for internet users. Many of the types of malware, rogue antivirus, and other forms of spyware are loaded onto the computer through the browser, so the browser needs to be hardened against attack, and Firefox 5 excels at this function. One innovative security feature is "Instant Web Site ID" which displays information on the website by clicking on the "favicon" (website icon) displayed to the left of the URL on the Awesome Bar. If the website has posted information about the site, it is posted here; a second click on "More Information" will display extensive additional information about the website, your previous visits to that website, and an option to display any passwords and cookies. This "Instant Web Site ID" can be useful to verify a suspicious website that may be "phishing", spoofing a legitimate website for the purpose of identity theft.

Many of us jealously guard our privacy, and Firefox 5 offers a "Private Browsing" feature. This feature, when selected before visiting sensitive websites by clicking on Tools-Start Private Browsing (or the shortcut CTRL-Shift P), instructs Firefox 5 to delete any records on the computer about the web sites that were visited, removing any cookies and browsing history from that session. This aspect of Firefox 5 is especially useful when browsing from a shared computer in a hotel business center, internet cafe, computer lab, or some other place where private information can be illicitly accessed and misused. This "Private Browsing" function is especially important if banking, finance, web mail, or any proprietary information is accessed form a shared computer. One of my favorite features is the "Do Not Track" function which tells websites to stop tracking your online behavior. Many websites track your online behavior and sell the data to advertisers, and this utility may prevent much of that tracking. "Do Not Track" is implemented by clicking on Tools - Options - Privacy and checking "Tell websites that I do not want to be tracked".

Phishing has become a major tool used by identity thieves, and Firefox 5 provides substantial protection from identity theft. Firefox is updated 48 times a day with a directory of known phishing forgery websites (coordinated with Google), and any subsequent attempts to connect to one of those websites will display a stern warning that the site visited is a suspected forgery. Among the most commonly forged websites are online banking, online payment services such as PayPal, retail sites like eBay or BestBuy, and government websites such as the IRS. If the user finds a suspicious website that he believes may be a phishing site, this suspicious website can be reported by clicking on Help - Report Web Forgery, and following the on-screen instructions. Similar to the phishing websites, Firefox has integral protection from purloined or hijacked websites that may transmit viruses, worms, trojans, spyware, and other forms of malware. Similarly to the phishing warning, Firefox 5 will warn the user about suspected websites harboring malware, and explain why Firefox believes the site is dangerous to access.

While many users prefer to use the software as it is installed, Firefox 5 has an extensive collection of plug-ins, add-ons, themes, and collections that can be installed. As I type this, Firefox is reporting that over 2.5 billion add-ons have been downloaded. Most add-ons provide enhanced functionality or security to the browser, while themes modify the appearance of the browser. Over 5000 functional add-ons are available to add content and security features to the browser, such as automated price comparisons, security and privacy enhancements, games, social networking utilities, real-time news and weather feeds, and dozens of other categories. Presently, there are 473 themes available, any of which can be quickly downloaded to customize the browser. The add-ons page says, "Collections are groups of related add-ons that anyone can create and share." Some of the most popular collections, where a variety of related add-ons can be installed, cover such topics as "Reference Desk (Make the librarian jealous with add-ons that help students, researchers or anyone with a tough question find and document all the answers)", and "Traveler's Pack (When the travel bug bites, these add-ons make it easy to plan, book and document your trip -- without getting lost along the way)". Over 60 thousand other collections are freely available.

With the combination of speed, compatibility, safety, security, and the ability to synchronize between devices, Firefox 5 has well earned my choice as my primary browser.

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