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11/19/2004
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In-Depth Review: What Makes Firefox 1.0 So Compelling

Mozilla's new Firefox Web browser can make believers even out of loyal Internet Explorer proponents.

If browsers were baseball, Mozilla's Firefox would be the Boston Red Sox. For years, Mozilla (and Netscape before it) has been the underdog that success has eluded. But looking at Firefox now, a little over a week since it bowed in final form, the word that comes to mind is believe.


Firefox 1.0 offers everything most people need to browse the Web. (Click on image to expand.)
Firefox 1.0 is the first Web browser since October, 1997, that deserves serious consideration by the entire world of desktop computer users. On October 1, 1997, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 4.0, which was a far better Windows browser than any other on the market. And, despite ongoing efforts from Opera, Netscape, Mozilla, and others, it has retained that mantle ever since.

Firefox 1.0 offers everything most people need to browse the Web, in a way you're apt to like better than Internet Explorer.

In recent years, Microsoft — which once tirelessly strove to improve Web browsing — has fallen asleep on its laurels. After all, there's no real money to be gained from improving Internet Explorer. And since IE is bundled with Windows, the market-share mountain is so steep that few competitors have risen to the challenge.

Well, score one for open source, because Firefox is a triumph of the alternative development model, and a truly a great Web browser. With this 1.0 release, Mozilla has shown that the impossible can happen.

Formula for Success
There are a lot of things to like about Firefox. When you start to enumerate them, the reasons for its likeability begin with the same assumptions that propelled Internet Explorer into the limelight in 1997:

1. Less is more, but make sure it has what people really need. 2. Make it very, very easy to use.

Firefox shies away from the basic premise of its big brother, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Mozilla 1.7 Navigator browser suite. Although there's a companion Mozilla e-mail application (codenamed Thunderbird), nearing completion, Firefox is not a suite of Internet apps that includes e-mail, newsgroup reader, Web page creation tool, and other bells and whistles. It is a Web browser and nothing more.

While streamlined, the Firefox feature set is nevertheless up-to-date compared to Internet Explorer 6.0. It provides pop-up blocking (as does the Windows XP Service Pack 2 version of IE 6), tabbed browsing, a download manager, RSS integration, integrated toolbar search, browser skins (including third-party), browser add-ons (called Extensions) that readily access and change the user interface, and full support for open-standard Web specifications, including CSS. Many of the features Firefox extends are very simple. There aren't a lot of options and user-configurations. The long-standing 80:20 design principle — provide 80 percent of the features people need and skip the rest — seems to have been adopted with a vengeance by Mozilla. I might describe it as something more like 70:30, but as you'll see, that's a recurring theme.

Another browser company, Opera Software, took the same less-is-more approach that Mozilla did with Firefox. The twist is that Opera did all that back in 1996 or so. What's more, its installer download size is about 1.3MB smaller than Firefox 1.0's installer. The reader might well then wonder why I'm not praising Opera to the skies the way I am Firefox. Opera's programmers are ingenious, and they've developed many excellent features that no one else has really matched. But there's one thing they haven't done — they haven't paid close attention to solid user-interface design. The Opera browser suite is quirky, doesn't make great use of screen real estate, and its blizzard of menu items and options approaches the overwhelming, even for more experienced users. Opera has improved quite a bit over the years, but its overall design still marches to its own drum. That's good in many things, but not in user interface design.

Firefox is the anti-Opera. Although it borrows many user-interface design principles from Mozilla's older browser line, the developers have also clearly spent a lot of time studying Internet Explorer. This is precisely the approach that Microsoft used when it won over word processing and spreadsheet users in the '90s. You don't win a marketplace by baffling them with amazing new features. You win them over by giving them what they want with a user experience that closely approximates what they're already know.

More than anything else, this is the smartest aspect of what Mozilla has done with Firefox. It's a realistic browser, a worthy successor to the Navigator line. It's a browser that inspires an emotional response. You don't have to learn to like it with your left brain; you just like it. Here are the pros and cons of its best features.

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