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Thursday, November 11, 2004

Firefox UI

In the news recently has been coverage of the release of version 1.0 of the Mozilla Firefox browser. This free, open source browser has been in development since early this year and is set to rival Microsoft's dominant Intenet Explorer browser.

But why is Firefox likely to become so popular, especially when the vast majority of Windows users aren't even aware of the existence of browsers other than IE? To them, the 'little blue e is the internet' and it came with their computer so why should they consider changing it? - "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Well the truth is, IE is very much broke and certainly needs fixing. USA today says "Beware of spyware. If you can, use the Firefox browser.” But in the absence of Microsoft producing any further development to IE since they laid claim to winning the browser wars, spyware and trojans are rife amongst Windows users.

Firefox not only combats these threats (simply by not being brain-dead by design, on the whole) but it enhances the user experience immensely. Some of the most obvious UI enhancements are the tabbed browsing and the built-in search.

Tabbed browsing descibes how a user can open multiple web pages inside one Firefox browser window. On windowing systems such as MS Windows or KDE each and every on-screen window needs an icon on the taskbar to allow the user to access it. Thus with 10 or 20 web pages open in Internet Explorer, each open window takes up valuable taskbar space and quite usually the whole idea becomes cumbersome and unusable as all you can see of each taskbar icon is the IE logo and '...' to indicate that the all-important website title doesn't fit into the icon - thus making it much harder to find any given web page from the stack.

With tabbed browsing you can keep your taskbar relatively clear as the main Firefox window contains tabs which pull a given website to the front of the stack inside the window.

Another seemingly very trivial feature of Firefox is the built-in search. In the URL bar, instead of typing a proper URL the user can enter a search keyword or string of keywords. Firefox recognises this and passes the search to Google, which returns the first site matching the keywords. Thus to get to a known website such as you can enter simply 'skype' and the browser will take you to the correct site (not always guaranteed though, as it depends on where Google ranks the site you're aiming for in its search results).

To find 'school of computer science, birmingham' that's all you need to enter into Firefox's URL bar. This is superior to the IE way of searching which uses Microsoft's own inferior MSN search engine to generate some useful and some not-so-useful results.

But this feature in IE can lead to mis-typed URLs such as being redirected to the MSN search page. So instead of pressing the left arrow key a few times to correct your typo you now have a huge MSN search URL to edit - or you can search the page trying to find out if they managed to find your desired site. Firefox gets around this problem by recognising the difference between a URL and a search term, and returning a simple 'page not found' error if your typo doesn't redirect you to a porn site.


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