First Look at Mozilla.org's Firefox

Microsoft has won the browser wars, but a battle is raging for the runner-up spot and one of the contenders just got refreshed.

The Mozilla Foundation has renamed and updated its Firebird browser, now called Firefox 0.8. Improvements include a download manager, the capability to view offline Web pages you've previously visited, and support for a growing number of browser add-ons called Extensions.

During a couple days of surfing with Firefox, I found the beta version stable enough to recommend it to anyone interested in an alternative to Internet Explorer. Firefox is downloadable now in a free preview release. A final 1.0 launch is scheduled to be available this summer from Mozilla.org.

Less Geek, More Chic

The revamped browser is slick, fast, lean, and versatile. It is the first browser release from the open source organization that is aimed at "non-techies," according to Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation.

"We think people deserve a better browser," Baker says. She says Firefox gives Web surfers a choice of a free Windows browser that won't tax their patience or their PC's system resources.

Firefox is compatible with the Windows, Linux, and Mac operating systems. It is a 6.2MB download.

The Firefox Alternative

Firefox differentiates itself from Internet Explorer and other alternative browsers like Opera and Netscape by what it doesn't offer: Firefox is a stripped-down program with a clean and simple interface. It consists only of the Mozilla browser, which is at the core of the Netscape browser. Mozilla.org takes this approach in contrast to the competitors that offer a host of services, a maze of features, and commercial tie-ins to their respective networks.

Firefox installs with just the essentials: a built-in pop-up blocker, a slick file-download manager, and a customizable search box in the browser toolbar. Also included are easy-to-understand privacy controls, a tabbed browsing feature so you can keep multiple Web pages open, and the capability to block many HTML-based banner ads.

Firefox outmaneuvers Microsoft's entry in a number of ways. First, IE still lacks tabbed browsing and a download manager, and it doesn't let you block pop-up ads as Firefox does. Microsoft says a pop-up blocker will be provided in the IE update that will be part of the Windows XP Service Pack 2 due out this year.

Another feature, Find as You Type, is unique to Firefox. It helps you find keywords on Web pages just by starting to type them. Words in Web pages that match your text string are highlighted as you type.

Browser Add-Ons

If you still hanker for a browser that does more, Firefox's Extensions can extend the browser's capabilities.

Extentions are small software applications that you download. Those that I've tried include a full-featured calendar, an Adblock Extension that blocks banner ads and Macromedia Flash-based ads, and a Privacy Extension that wipes clean your Internet tracks with one click.

To manage and add Extensions, go to Firefox's Tools and Options menu and select Extensions. Here you can add and remove browser features and link to a library of about 150 Extensions through the Mozilla Foundation Web site. Another way to manage Extensions is by right-clicking the browser toolbar and selecting Customize. This displays a menu from which you can drag and drop icons that give your browser added functions, like a one-click button that enlarges text on Web pages.

Extensions are vast and varied. The selection includes an RSS reader add-on, a browser-based spell-checker, and a utility that lets you create mouse gestures so you can perform browser functions with small, quick mouse movements.

Extensions are addictive, and adding too many can quickly clutter your browser interface and become a distraction. But with Mozilla.org's approach to adding features, you only have yourself to blame for browser bloat.

Browser Bummers

In many respects, Firefox remains too geeky for non-techies.

Mozilla.org's Extensions Web site was inaccessible for two days during this evaluation. Representatives say that's because the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation relies on a community of programmers, and doesn't host the Extensions itself. The developer's site that hosts the Extensions was bogged down with download traffic, so I could access the Firefox Extensions library once over two days. The Extensions library was later working properly.

I also found some advanced features, like finding and managing Extensions, not intuitive enough. The Extension Adblock was very powerful on my home PC. Unfortunately, the same Extension failed miserably at blocking ads on my work computer for some mysterious reason.

I was also disappointed that a minority of Web sites I visited didn't display correctly because the sites were designed specifically for IE. To be fair, that's not Firefox's problem--but it's the reality all alternative browsers must contend with.

Baker says Mozilla is still stomping out many bugs before the browser's final release this summer. In its current state, Firefox is fine for most Web surfers but can't be trusted as your PC's only browser.

Still, Firefox is a nimble contender to the lumbering IE. Look to Firefox to take chances on innovative tools that Microsoft won't risk developing. If you're not the adventurous type, you'll prefer to keep safe and stable with IE.

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