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Mozilla Firefox Update Is Worth the Download

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TechNews.com Tech Policy E-letter You are reading the weekly Fast Forward E-letter. Written by Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro, the e-mail version of this feature includes links to all the top personal tech stories from the previous week.
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Monday, June 21, 2004;

Got a question you've been meaning to ask about my columns or about the reviews and other stories I edit? This afternoon's your big, regularly scheduled chance: My Web chat runs from 2 to 3 p.m. ET. As ever, you can submit questions ahead of time if you can't get away from work for the chat itself.

In the meantime, there's a new browser update out that's worth the download. Mozilla Firefox -- my favorite browser in Windows on account of its pop-up blocking, tabbed browsing, and clean, elegant interface -- hit version 0.9 on Wednesday. This is the last preview release before the planned 1.0 debut later this summer, but it's as polished as most version-2.0 applications.

(Last week also brought new releases to the Mozilla Thunderbird e-mail client, and the Mozilla browser suite itself; more on those later.)

Firefox 0.9 looks different from 0.8, thanks to a new visual theme. A lot of Firefox users have expressed their dislike of the new look in online forums, but I don't really mind the change. The new toolbar icons look cleaner, and their slightly wider spacing reduces the odds of clicking the wrong button by mistake. On the other hand, the taller bookmarks toolbar now looks too big.

Firefox's Options window has been condensed still further in 0.9, with only five categories of preferences. New dialog boxes make it much easier to add or remove extensions (plug-ins that add functions to the browser) and themes (so you can sub in the old Firefox theme if you want).

So far, Firefox 0.9 has been completely reliable on my Windows 2000 desktop, but it did stop working on my Windows XP laptop: First the computer's default browser somehow got reassigned to MSN, then Firefox crashed each time it started up.

I decided the problem had to be a corrupted user profile, so I opened the Firefox profile folder (the directory it occupies is hidden by default in Windows, so navigating to there took a little extra work), copied my bookmarks file and trashed the rest of the stuff there. Then I restarted the browser, reloaded the old bookmarks and Firefox was ready to go. And I was reminded anew of what a pleasure it is when a program doesn't require changing 10 different settings before it's usable.

So, in short, if you don't mind having to download a newer 1.0 version when that arrives in the coming months, give Firefox a try (it's available for Mac OS X and Linux as well as Windows, although the Mac OS X version suffers by having to compete with Apple's excellent Safari). Give it a week or so, and tell me if you haven't switched from Internet Explorer, and if so, why -- maybe there's something about Web browsers that I've been missing all along.

One reader offered one reason for sticking with IE in my Web chat two weeks ago:

Arlington, Va.: My 80-year-old great-aunt, who has just barely started to learn how to use a computer and browse the Internet, got hit by a spyware program that saddled her with Lycos Sidesearch, an n-Case spybot, and various hacked settings. As the family's designated tech support, I've been on the phone with her for hours repairing her system. She's very new at this (to the point where I have to keep specifying whether to click with the left button or the right); I've felt like George Kennedy trying to talk Karen Allen through landing a 747 over the radio. Your recent columns and advice about spyware have been a huge help, and I wanted to thank you.

On the bright side, she's learning a lot, and becoming confident that she doesn't have to be afraid of breaking the computer, because any problem can be fixed. Unfortunately, switching away from IE is not really an option. It's been enough of a learning curve getting her up to speed on IE, and that's what the other relatives and the other folks in her seniors class all use. I'm ready to support public stoning for spyware developers.

A: My advice to Arlington would be that, if this great-aunt really is becoming unafraid of "breaking the computer," then she will be able to adapt to Firefox. If, on the other hand, that's not quite the case, I'd suggest removing access to IE altogether using Set Program Access and Defaults, set up Firefox and tell her it's an upgrade to her Web -- which happens to be true. In my experience, beginning users are attached to tasks, not tools, and if the new tool you provide works enough like the old one, things will be fine.

One last reading item, if today's topic of software development interests you: the detailed blog entry of Microsoft developer Rich Schaut about how Microsoft Word 6.0 for the Mac went awry, and how the company started to clean that mess up (thanks to Wired News, where I saw this link first).

Come to think of it, Schaut's entire "Buggin' My Life Away" blog is worth reading if you've got the time for insights on such topics as where bugs come from, the corporate culture in his corner of the Microsoft empire, and what users really mean when they say they want feature X or Y.

-- Rob Pegoraro (rob@twp.com)


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