NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, March 2011
Browser Wars Intensify
With Release of IE9, Firefox 4 - Part 2

By Ira Wilsker, Radio Show Host,
Columnist, College Professor and deputy sheriff
(click to email author)

http://getfirefox.com http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/new http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/central http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/plugincheck http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/performance http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/security

Last week I wrote about the newly released Internet Explorer 9 from Microsoft, and how it has increased speed and security over the older versions of Internet Explorer. Despite the fact that it is included with virtually all builds of Windows sold in the United States and most (but not all) other countries, and many users are unaware or unwilling to download and use an alternative browser, it has seen a significant decrease in market share. While it appeared that Internet Explorer had a near monopoly on the browser market for several years, several feisty competitors have appeared, and been met with varying degrees of success in taking market share from Internet Explorer. One of the former strong competitors, Netscape, lost much of its market share, underwent changes in ownership, and was eventually phased out, leaving its open source code for a successor to develop. From this open source code evolved the number two browser in the world, Firefox.

Somewhat akin to the old slogan that Avis used in its epic battle with Hertz, "We're number two; we try harder!", Firefox has generally been more innovative then Internet Explorer, generally faster, more feature rich, and more secure than Microsoft's product, with a quicker upgrade path for bug fixes and security enhancements. Being an open source product, meaning that the program code is readily available, thousands of plug-ins and add-ons have been independently created to increase the usability and security of Firefox, allowing for an almost infinite ability to customize the browser and improve the browsing experience of the user.

When I downloaded and installed Firefox 4, it seamlessly imported my bookmarks (favorites), history, passwords, cookies, and other information and settings from my Firefox 3.6.15. For those installing Firefox 4 for the first time, the installation offers the user to non-destructively import favorites, cookies, history, passwords, and other settings and information from Internet Explorer, such that Firefox 4 is instantly ready to be used, without the loss of any significant material from Internet Explorer. Users should be aware that Internet Explorer and Firefox (as well as the other browsers such as Opera, Chrome, and Safari) mutually coexist on the computer and desktop without interfering with each other. Each browser asks to be made the default browser, meaning that it will be opened if a web link is clicked, and my personal choice is to have Firefox as my default browser. In no way does this degrade the functionality of the other browsers, as I sometimes use the others for special purposes, but still use Firefox for almost all of my browsing needs.

The first thing I noticed after opening my newly installed Firefox 4 is that the "screen real estate" or space used by web pages seemed larger, because it was indeed larger. Firefox 4 reduced the numbers of buttons and tools on the page (they are still available if needed), and combined the functions of others into a single button that intelligently knows what function to engage. To access what used to be the menus at the top of the pages, simply click on the "Firefox" button in the top left corner, and a comprehensive menu drops down, reminiscent of the menus available on older versions of Firefox; after use, the menus disappear, leaving a clean appearance. The address bar, now called the "Awesome Bar", and tabs are thinner (less height), also freeing up space on the desktop. Tabs for open pages are now at the top of the screen by default, but can be quickly moved below the Awesome Bar if desired. These changes at the top of the window create a clean appearance, lacking the clutter of older browsers, freeing up space for web pages. If the user wants to restore the classic menu buttons to their archaic positions at the top of the page, and sacrifice some of the newly available real estate, clicking on the "Firefox" button and then Options - Menu Bar will display the menus where they were on the older versions.

I usually have several tabs (web pages) open at any given time, and sometimes it gets confusing and cluttered when switching between tabs. Firefox 4 offers a feature it calls "Panorama". With Panorama, commonly used tabs can be combined in single group, making them each readily identifiable and accessible. I created a Panorama for my most commonly used tabs, including my web based email, Facebook, my news page, and my stock quotes. By going to the Panorama, I can instantly see a thumbnail of each of the pages, and open them as desired. Multiple Panoramas can be created for other groups or clusters of often used tabs. The Panorama button is a small, square icon made up of four smaller rectangles, and this will open the Panoramas. Some users have reported that they did not have a Panorama icon, but it is available and can be permanently displayed by clicking on the down arrow on the right of the tabs, displaying a menu of the open tabs; by clicking on the "Tab Groups", the Panorama screen will open, and the icon for it will now appear on the browser. Panorama is a powerful tool that can be manipulated and used to manage groups and tabs; a little practice is all that is necessary to master the functions of panorama.

Now that users can access Firefox on multiple platforms and devices, including a new Firefox for mobile phones, a "Sync" function allows the user to securely synchronize passwords, tabs, bookmarks, and other information between browsers. Now, if Firefox 4 is used on multiple computers, tablets, smart phones, and other devices, the user can have material from one device instantly available on any other chosen device, all efficiently coordinated or "Synced". Clicking on the "Tabs From Other Computers" will display the open tabs from the other synchronized computers.

I tried this on two simultaneous running computers with Sync engaged on both, and was able to get an open tab on one machine to automatically appear on the other machine. Sync also works across different operating systems; since Firefox 4 will run on Windows, Mac, and other operating systems, Sync will effectively connect all of them To save space and maintain a clean look, buttons have been rearranged, which may take the user a few moments to become familiar with using. The "Home" button will display any stored bookmarks by clicking on the "down arrow", and the "star" icon will create a new bookmark. Frequently used tabs or bookmarks can be "pinned" on the tab bar, somewhat permanently placing them there (they are removable), allowing their easy access whenever Firefox is loaded.

One notable improvement in Firefox 4 over its predecessors and some of its major competitors is speed. Firefox 4 loads faster, and displays pages much faster than in the past. In published performance tests, Firefox 4 loaded and displayed web mail, games, and other pages between three and six times faster than the previous Firefox 3.6. One of the several reasons for this improved performance is an improved Java script engine called JägerMonkey, which is faster and more efficient than earlier engines. Another substantial improvement on speed and performance comes from hardware acceleration, which works with Windows 7, Vista, XP, and Max OS X, and takes better advantage of the hardware in the machine to speed the display of games and videos, and other graphic intensive websites.

Browsing privacy is becoming more important to users for safety and security reasons. Firefox 4 offers a "Private Browsing", which allows the user to surf the net without saving a list of the websites which were visited. Some users prefer to "Clear Recent History" which will delete private data or recent browsing activity, making it difficult for others to see what the user was doing online. Sometimes we visit a website in error, or one that we would prefer to simply forget; the "Forget This Site" feature deletes every trace of having ever visited that website. Many uses are oblivious that websites either by themselves, or in collaboration with other websites, track where the user has been for the purpose of creating marketing profiles for sale to advertisers, or other information about the user; the "Do Not Track" feature informs websites that the user wants to opt-out of any tracking. Fraud of various types is rampant on the internet; the "Content Security Policy" determines which website content is legitimate, and protects the user from many forms of cross-site scripting attacks. In terms of personal privacy, while Firefox 4 is very good at protecting the user's privacy, it should be noted that ISP's and websites typically collect information from the data stream, and a browser cannot definitively control this collection.

One claim that has been made about Firefox in the past is that it has often been more secure than Internet Explorer; Firefox 4 continues this tenaciousness by implementing a series of tough security functions at the browser level. One such feature is "Instant Website ID" which displays a color coded icon directly to the left of the web address in the Awesome Bar (address bar), which indicates the degree of valid identity information available about the listed website. If the icon is gray, that indicates that there is no identity information listed for that website, which may be an indication that the particular website is not trustworthy, and personal information and credit card numbers maybe should not be entered on that site. A blue icon indicates that the website has basic identity information available, and that there may be some form of third party "trust" verification, along with some encryption, but the information has not been independently verified by a credible resource. A green icon means that the website being displayed has posted complete information about it, and has validated its authenticity. Firefox 4 also provides integral protection from phishing (forged websites used to obtain information for the purpose of identity theft or other financial crimes), and malware (Trojans and spyware) which may be transmitted from a purloined website, by warning the user to avoid that particular website.

Many of us frequently download and install software and other files from the internet via our browser; this has also become a prominent vector for the transmission of malware. The "Secure Software Installation" feature requires that a secured connection be established prior to the downloading and installation of any software. This feature, along with "AntiVirus Integration", which integrates the user's security software with the browser, scans downloads for malware as they are being downloaded, providing an extra level of protection from viruses and other malware.

Browsers incorporate a variety of plug-ins and other add-ons which provide additional functionality to the browser. Common plug-ins include Java, QuickTime, Flash, Adobe Acrobat, and many others. Firefox 4 offers a "Plug-in Check" to display which plug-ins need to be updated, which may result in improved security and performance. Adjacent to each plug-in is a button to automate the update process by automatically downloading the latest plug-ins.

Users of Windows 7 who have young children may implement the parental control features integrated into Windows 7; Firefox 4 seamlessly integrates with the Windows 7 parental controls and can block the children from unapproved web access, downloads, and other internet functions.

There are many more new or improved features in Firefox 4, which is explicitly why I use it as my default browser. One minor issue, which Firefox is currently rectifying, is that a few of my third party plug-ins and add-ons from Firefox 3.6.15 were incompatible with Firefox 4 when imported, and thus could not be used. Firefox 4 has a feature which allows the user to report any incompatible plug-ins to the developers who will try to resolve the incompatible items. Most of the few plug-ins I had issues with have been resolved, with only my older version of the RoboForm password manager having some issues with Firefox 4. RoboForm is offering an upgraded version that is optimized for Firefox 4 for a fee ($20), but the blog threads indicate that Firefox may have a fix in the works.

Rhetorically, one may ask why Firefox earned the number two position in the browser market. The answers are many, as discussed above. Firefox 4 is available for free for almost all operating systems and platforms, including portable and mobile devices. Since they can all be securely synchronized if desired, Firefox 4 can be an excellent choice, even if another browser is already installed. The different versions can all be accessed at mozilla.com. Download it and install it, and you will likely enjoy Firefox 4 as much as I enjoy it.

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