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Mozilla -- Exception to the Rule

Monday, November 15, 2004;

I will host a Web chat starting at 2 p.m. ET today, with topic A being Web browsers, and one in particular: Mozilla Firefox, the subject of my column yesterday. So please fire up your Web browser, whatever one you happen to use, at that time, or submit your questions early.

In the meantime, I have some questions for you all. This coming Sunday we'll be running our annual guide to technology -- in print, we'll cover home computers, MP3 players, digital photography and handheld organizers, while online we'll have additional details about consumer electronics. That means now's the time to tell me what you'd like to know about each of these categories. What sort of things would you like to know that you haven't seen in our (or others) prior coverage? Drop me a line with your requests.

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NOTE: No matter how nicely you ask, I can't give you specific product recommendations. Only rarely do you see one product good enough to recommend to people unconditionally.

A Walk Down the Mozilla Memory Lane

On the other hand, my review of Firefox 1.0 in yesterday's column was one of those unconditional approvals. I don't think I could have written a stronger recommendation for that browser without the copy desk running a headline like, "I heart Firefox" or "Firefox: I'm In the Tank." (That's journalese for "this writer is in a total swoon over this subject, so let's make fun of him for it.")

My rave about Firefox, however, shouldn't have been much of a surprise if you've been reading this space regularly. One of the pleasant side effects of reviewing an open-source application such as this has been the chance to see the application grow up over time in response to bug reports and feature requests -- a process that most commercial software developers hide.

My first mention of Firefox came in my Dec. 29, 2002, year-in-review column: "Mozilla gave me a Web without pop-up ads, at the price of the rare site-specific glitch; better yet, it's already spawned both a couple of useful upgrades and speedy offshoots, including Phoenix and Chimera."

Phoenix was Firebird's name at the time (Phoenix Technologies, a BIOS manufacturer, later squawked about the overlap), and Chimera was the name of a still-in- development, Mac-only version that's since been rechristened as Camino (try out the current .81 release).

I returned to the subject in a review of Apple's Safari browser in June of 2003: "Mozilla Firebird, a browser-only offshoot of the Mozilla open-source Internet suite, features a similar focus on speed and simplicity and even looks like Safari, with its search-engine shortcut at the top right corner."

Firebird was this browser's second name; it, too, was discarded after the developers of an open-source database of the same moniker complained. Lesson learned: Teach your kids to be trademark lawyers, because apparently there's a lot of business to be had.

Firefox got an even stronger plug in a column I wrote back in February about the problem of browser hijacking: "For most people, the best IE replacement is a free copy of Mozilla (www.mozilla.org), the descendant of Netscape. If you don't mind using a preview release, however, the faster, simpler and also free Mozilla Firefox will be a better fit."

Before long, though, I started recommending Firefox to coworkers, readers and friends outright, and wrote a newsletter saying as much in March.

In that piece, however, I critiqued a few of Firefox's workings, such as the way it would not open links passed over from other programs in a new tab: "Firefox is overdue to steal Safari's sensible approach to tabbed-browsing management, in which a link you click on in some other program -- for example, your e-mail client -- will automatically open in a new tab instead of overwriting whatever page you were already viewing."

As it happened, Firefox users had already opened a bug report complaining about this same behavior, one of which cited my review as evidence that the program needed to be fixed. That either proves some sort of journalist Heisenberg principle -- that reviewing something will always affect it -- or it just verifies that people sometimes read my stuff. Either way, it was interesting, and somewhat weird, to see such a feedback loop at work so openly.

In two newsletters this summer and fall, I noted minor updates to Firefox that added such features as the newly streamlined Options window and the Find interface, to which I have now grown helplessly addicted. I actually get annoyed when this same command in other browsers and word processors doesn't bring up Firefox's elegant little "Find bar."

Curious about how far Firefox has come? Walk down Firefox's memory lane, and get a glimpse of where it's headed next, by viewing the roadmap laid out by Firefox's lead developers.

A Final Note on Security

One of the big reasons to use Firefox instead of Internet Explorer is the way IE can make drive-by downloads and browser hijacks so easy. But what do you do if you think your PC has already been infected in those ways? Run an anti- spyware utility -- or three. We're planning an updated comparison of those, but in the meantime this review offers an in-depth comparison of several alternatives, as well as technical details about this problem: spywarewarrior.com/asw-test-guide.htm.

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)


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