Switch from Internet Explorer to Firefox?

Firefox offers some great improvements over Internet Explorer, such as the ability to suppress images and tabbed browsing, but watch out if you're using WebFacing.


Jim Mason

Yes, Microsoft Internet Explorer owns the browser space on Windows desktops after blowing past Netscape in the late 90s. But guess what's happened in the past few months. The impossible.

An open-source software group, the Mozilla Foundation, has taken on Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer, the 800-pound gorilla in the Web browser space. And what we've seen is in two weeks, the new Firefox browser has taken 7.5 % of the browser market and Explorer has dropped below 89% market share for the first time in years.

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The big news, however, is Mozilla, an open-source software group, is beating the world's most powerful software company at something that Bill Gates told Congress was strategic for Microsoft's business.

What improvements does Firefox offer?

Firefox, which is available as a free download from mozilla.org, supports Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

Some of Firefox's improvements include the following:

  • You can easily suppress images you don't want for faster page downloads. (Yes, kill those flash plug-ins you don't want to see.)
  • Tabbed browsing lets you open a new browser window as a tab in the current window, taking up less desktop real estate.
  • Pop-up window controls let you disable those pop-up ads you get all the time in Explorer.
  • The cookie manager is somewhat similar to Explorer's.
  • The download manager organizes downloads and provides a nice history compared with Explorer.

Firefox also provides all the customization, preferences, security settings and other features you're used to in Internet Explorer. And remember, it runs on Linux and other operating systems where Explorer doesn't. I think Linux will be a big hit in the next few years in iSeries shops, and this might be another reason to make the switch.

Web development expert Paul Holm pointed out that some of the extensions, particularly those for developers can be useful. If you visit https://update.mozilla.org/extensions/?application=firefox, you can see all the extensions available for easy download and install. The developer tool list includes the following:

  • Colorzilla -- a tool to easily determine the exact color used anywhere on a Web page
  • CuneAform -- a simple HTML page editor
  • Editcss -- a simple stylesheet modifier
  • JavaScript debugger -- a critical tool if you're doing JavaScript development on your Web pages
  • JsLib -- a Mozilla JavaScript library
  • Web Developer -- makes it easy to understand HTML page and object attributes

Basic, built-in developer support is nice as well. The DOM browser lets you easily see the Document Object Model for your Web page in a pop-up window.

Where it fits for me

Most of us who have tried Firefox like it better. I downloaded the 1.0 release and ran the install (a simple wizard). Hoping for the best, I just ran the install wizard and ignored the readme file. (A real test of the "normal" person approach to software!) Much to my surprise, not only did the software install easily but it also gave an option to migrate all my Explorer bookmarks to Firefox –- and it did that perfectly.

Firefox has a cleaner default layout and faster performance (especially with many browser windows open at once). The browser takes up less desktop real estate, since the bookmarks are a drop-down list over the browser. It even displayed Web pages perfectly that I had saved to disk with Explorer.

What limitations are there?

There's only one limitation that I can see that impacts anything -– the Document Object Model (DOM) isn't 100% the same between the Explorer and Firefox. Did that create any problems for me? Ironically, it was a problem only when I ran IBM Web software. For the past five years, IBM has been writing all its Web software using Explorer (that's ironic!). As a result, the JavaScript that's loaded to a browser runs with Explorer's (DOM) perfectly. But it also means IBM pages won't always load perfectly in Firefox.

Going to iSeries InfoCenter to browse manuals with Firefox I get one halt that says, "Your browser may not understand the JavaScript, do you want to ignore this message?" I said yes, and everything worked fine. I suspect IBM just added a test to verify the browser was Explorer and decided if it wasn't that they'd warn you.

The bigger issue for me right now is WebFacing from IBM Toronto. They put ALL the DDS edits you have in 5250 green screen into JavaScript for the browser. Of course it's written only for Explorer. Four years ago IBM begged off spending the money to make WebFacing cross-platform. Now that move has come back to haunt them. While early on it seemed like a smart move to save money, now it's clear they will need to support a common DOM model between the two browsers. I expect IBM will announce that they will support the Firefox DOM in WebFacing, but I don't know when.

Where does Firefox fit for you?

I encourage you to try the browser. I'd be surprised if you like Explorer better, although I realize there will be compatibility issues in some software such as WebFacing.

The fact that many Internet viruses are written explicitly for Internet Explorer means users can expect fewer virus attacks on FireFox, at least at this point. It's also much easier to block a lot of spyware by simply disabling popup windows -- a nice option to have.

What about the future?

Mozilla has also released Thunderbird, an Outlook replacement for e-mail. In addition, Google is working to embed its search engine for the Web and the desktop in Firefox. Google already has Microsoft beat in the search market. Combining with Firefox will make it easier to take over all Web traffic. It also supports many plug-ins for media and so on.

In addition, there has been talk that a version of OpenOffice and Firefox will be sold retail for approximately $29, which is a fraction of Microsoft's inflated prices for the Office suite. It remains to be seen if that will take off too, but there's certainly strong economic incentive to test this out --and I will as soon as it hits the market.

In the meantime, good luck with Firefox and Thunderbird.

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About the author: Jim Mason is president of ebt-now and training manager at StructuredSoft . ebt-now provides iSeries WebSphere Studio training services. StructuredSoft has the StructuredJ Java Web development plug in for WDSC and the open-source StructuredSoft Developer platform for iSeries. Jim is creating a self-study course for RPG programmers that teaches "hands-on" rapid visual development with WDSC for all types of iSeries and e-business applications without the need to become a Java expert. The course will be published by Rochester Initiative. You can reach Jim at jemason@ebt-now.com.


This was first published in December 2004

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