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Mozilla Firefox 0.9

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In: Reviews > Product Reviews

By Will Chatham

Published on June 30, 2004

The folks at Mozilla recently released the free Firefox 0.9 for public review, and as it nears its first full 1.0 release, the features, tools, and abilities of Mozilla Firefox are converging in perfect harmony. In its current state, Firefox is still a preview of the browser to come, but it has taken the Web by storm in a grassroots effort to show the world that browsers other than Internet Explorer do exist, and yes, they are actually good. While Microsoft forces the public to wait for a new browser until at least 2006, browsers such as Firefox are given a chance to shine. In addition to the enhancements for day-to-day Internet browsing, the growing list of extendable abilities that Firefox offers enables Web professionals to save time, money, and effort.

A Tool for the Masses

Firefox promises to capture the average Internet user largely based on features such as built-in popup blocking, tabbed browsing, and speed. The latest version is a scant 4.7MB download for Windows, and is not much bigger than that for other platforms (Linux and Mac OS X.) With this version, they have gone for a true, cross-platform browser that looks the same, works the same and provides all the same extensibility no matter what you install it on. Firefox 0.9 makes the migration easy by automatically importing cookies, bookmarks and other settings from other browsers you may already have installed. This alone has helped me convert many a die-hard Internet Explorer user. People are usually wary of change—the people at Mozilla are aware of this and make changing over as easy as possible.

As more security flaws are reported and exploited in Internet Explorer, the public may catch on to the importance of safe Web surfing. Mozilla has reported over 3 million downloads of Firefox to date. With its growing popularity, new auto-updating feature, and with reports such as this one at IT Week’s site suggesting people switch browsers for the sake of security, this number will grow.

A Tool for The Web Professional

The features of Firefox touted on the Firefox home page merely scratch the surface of what the browser can really do. It is a well-known fact that Firefox and other Mozilla browsers support Web standards more extensively than Internet Explorer. Extensions make Firefox a powerful development tool, and with version 0.9, managing extensions has never been easier. Since making Firefox my default browser during release 0.6 (then known as Firebird), I have discovered several invaluable extensions for designers and developers.

Extensions

A Quick How-To

You can access all of the extensions I mention here by choosing “Tools” in the Firefox menu, selecting “Extensions”, and clicking the “Get More Extensions” link (see image below), which takes you to the Mozilla Update page. Installing extensions from the update page is easy: click the “Install Now” link and follow the instructions. Click the “Update” button to check for updates to any extensions you may already have. Usually a restart of the browser is needed to complete the installation.

The Extensions Control Menu

Firefox Extensions Menu

Web Developer 0.8 Extension by Chris Pederick

This extension adds a toolbar to your browser that contains many tools to help Web designers and Web developers alike. I have found that I most often use the tools in the validation menu, which link to the W3C’s CSS and HTML validation pages, as well as several engines which do accessibility validation. The links will automatically plug in the current page’s URL for you, then submit it for validation. The resulting page will smartly open in a new tab, leaving the page you validated in front of you. This makes validating an entire site much quicker and saves a lot of time otherwise spent clicking back and forth in order to copy-and-paste URL’s into a validation page. You can even configure your own validation links in the toolbar if you want to extend it even further or change what is there.

Another set of powerful features are the CSS tools included in this version of Web Developer, which seem to combine previously separate extensions, such as Edit CSS and others, in this release.

You can apply your own style sheet to a page, quickly view a page’s default style sheet, and even edit a page’s style sheet in real time by way of a side panel that opens up. These tools make quick work of trying out a new idea or debugging a CSS layout issue. One tool allows you to hover your mouse pointer over any page element to see the styles applied to that element, and the hierarchy of those styles, right in the browser status bar.

The “Miscellaneous” section of the extension toolbar gives you such handy tools as “Clear Cache,” “Clear HTTP Authentication,” “Clear Session Cookies,” and links to open Java and JavaScript consoles for debugging. There are even links to the W3C’s specifications for HTML, XHTML and CSS.

It doesn’t stop there. This toolbar is so chock-full of goodies that you really need to check it out for yourself. Let me just mention a few more: instantly outline block level elements of a page; zoom out and zoom in on a page; display browser dimensions and enter target resolutions; show information about forms, frames, comments, images and more.

User Agent Switcher by Chris Pederick

The genius of Chris Pederick strikes again with this extension. The User Agent Switcher allows you instantly to change the string of information your browser sends to a Web server it is visiting. For example, a typical user agent string for Internet Explorer 6 might look something like this:

Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; .NET CLR 1.1.4322

You can change the user agent string Mozilla sends to mimic this, thus fooling a Web server into thinking you are using Internet Explorer. Among other things, this would allow you to try out your user agent sniffing scripts from one browser, or see what prevents a site from displaying correctly in a particular browser.

There are several predefined strings that come with the extension (IE6 on XP, Netscape 4.8 on PC, Opera 7.21 on XP), or you can configure your own.

All-In-One Gestures 0.11.1 by Marc Boullet

Mouse gestures have gotten their act together with the release of this extension. I had previously written them off as being buggy and unorganized, but, much to my delight, vast improvements have been made. Many of the better gesture extensions have been combined into All-In-One Gestures, providing a great level of customization, control, and ease of use. As of yet, I have not encountered any bugs.

What is a mouse gesture? It is an extension that allows you to do common, repetitive tasks with a motion (usually combined with a click) anywhere on your screen, rather than clicking menu buttons or using keyboard shortcuts. Think of them as über-shortcuts. For example, right-clicking and dragging left will take you back to the previous page. A little red line, being drawn on the screen as you do this, lets you know you are in the middle of executing a gesture. Doing the opposite gesture to the right would move you forward. Just about anything you can do with a button or menu item, Firefox will let you do as a gesture, including opening new tabs, switching between tabs, and reloading pages.

You can use the right mouse button not only for gestures, but also to configure your scroll wheel and middle mouse button to do normally mundane tasks.

Sure, this might seem like a tool for the lazy, but the time saved actually does add up and, as you get used to them, you’ll start to wonder how you ever lived without mouse gestures.

IE View 0.8 by Paul Roub

This is a simple extension that adds an option in the context menu (right-click menu) for “View Page in Internet Explorer.” Consider this just another time saver when checking your pages for cross-browser compatibility. This extension works in Windows only.

What’s Next?

Even though Firefox has not reached a full, public version, I find it far more powerful and less buggy than any other browser currently available. Still, there are a few enhancements that I feel could still be made, such as the ability to drag and drop bookmarks without having to open the Bookmark Manager. That said, if there is something you don’t like about the browser, someone has probably written an extension to change it. My guess is that the Mozilla team wants to keep the download size for the browser as small as possible.

In Conclusion

What I have described here are but a few of the ever-growing number of extensions for Mozilla Firefox. Many of these extensions are specifically geared to help the Web professional; the other enhancements benefit everyone. I highly recommend trying them out if you haven’t already. The most remarkable fact about the extensions (and the Mozilla project itself) is that everything is developed by people who care to see an improved Web browser, and who care to help other people’s browsing experience and workflow. These people do this for the common good. The end result is a browser for the people, by the people, that empowers the people to “take back the Web.” It is a Web browser rich with features and tools that rival anything else available.

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Will Chatham is the Webmaster for Ingles Markets, Inc., a Fortune 1000 grocery chain in the southeast United States. He is the one-man Web department, facilitating all aspects of the Web site, Web server, programming, and design. Will also runs a home-based business, Asheville Technologies where he grows organic Web sites.

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