The end of October saw two milestones in the browser world. Microsoft finally got Internet Explorer 7 out the door, while Mozilla released Firefox 2, the latest version of the open source browser. This week we'll take a first look at Firefox, while Microsoft's futile effort to keep up will be saved for next week.
Firefox has enjoyed success in gaining market share in 2006. At the BugBlog, the market share for the various versions of Firefox are now up to 33 percent; at another site where I'm webmaster, which has a mostly MBA/economist/"people in suits" readership, it has a 12 percent market share, which is probably closer to its total in the overall marketplace. At Blogcritics, which has a more general audience than these other sites, the Firefox market share is around 20 percent.
As a webmaster, one of the first things I check when a new browser comes out is whether it breaks one of my sites. I've got some older, table-based layouts as well as new XHTML and CSS-based designs, and I was happy to see that they all worked. That's probably because I stay away from any of the more advanced hacks in doing layouts. In any case, you shouldn't really see much of a change in how a site renders between Firefox 1.5.x and Firefox 2.0.
Mozilla Firefox 2.0 is not a huge leap forward. That's mostly because Mozilla has been issuing new releases fairly steadily, and is actually planning a Firefox 3.0 sometime in 2007. The first thing you will notice is a new default theme for the icons and toolbars, which comes from the Radiant Core design firm in Toronto, Canada. If you don't like the new visual look it doesn't really matter, since there are many more themes you can apply to change the visual style of the browser.
The biggest new feature, as far as I'm concerned, is the addition of a "Close" button on each individual tab when using tabbed browsing. (For those of you stuck in an Internet Explorer world, tabbed browsing is the ability to open multiple web pages within the same browser window, with tabs that let you navigate between the opened pages.) This makes closing specific tabs less confusing. Doing a right-click on a tab button also brings up a context-sensitive menu that lets you do things like refresh a tab, refresh all tabs, close all the other tab buttons, or undo the last Close tab that you did.
The biggest safety improvement is probably the anti-phishing feature. (Phishing is an Internet technique used to pull off identity theft, where one website will try to imitate another website, to trick you into typing in sensitive information, such as usernames, passwords, or credit card numbers.) Firefox 2 comes with a list of known phishing sites that is stored locally on your computer. Sites that you are browsing are checked against this list, and if you browse to one of the suspect sites, a warning balloon will pop up saying this site is a suspected forgery. Your local list is regularly updated by Firefox when you are online, possibly as often as every hour or so.
If you want the most up-to-date list of phishing sites, you can configure the browser to check with a real-time list of phishing sites checked by Google. (This real-time filtering is more like the Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 anti-phishing protection – something that will be covered in the upcoming review of IE 7). You can find out more about the Mozilla anti-phishing feature here.
Another handy feature lets you pick how to handle any web feed, or RSS feed, that you may come across. You can either check a default feed-reader to use, or you can configure Firefox to ask you to pick a reader off a list.
The last new feature that I've used, and wish I didn't have to use, is a Session Restore feature. If Mozilla crashes, the next time you start it up it offers to take you back to where you were — a particular site, or group of sites opened in tabs, along with filled-in form information. Unfortunately, in the (almost) two weeks that I've been using Firefox 2, I've had four crashes involving three different sites. The first time: I followed a link to what looked like a promising article at a Google Blogger blogspot site; the page displayed, but crashed before I had a chance to read the article. When I started up Firefox, I used the Session Restore to go back to that page, and had another crash. That was enough to cause me to give up on that site.
The next day, I went to another Google Blogger Blogspot site, a political/social commentary site that I read quite often, and had another crash. However, I've been back to that site just about every day since, and haven't had any problems. The fourth crash was from a major media site whose page was loaded with ads, videos, and all kinds of Web 2.0 content. This crash had more suspects than you would find in an Agatha Christie mystery.
On average, this works out as a crash about every third day, which really doesn't amount to much when you consider how much I use the web, but it's still more than I'm used to from Firefox 220.127.116.11. It's not nearly enough to make me consider switching to IE 7, however. In terms of usability, safety, and updates, Firefox is still the way to go.