In its beta phase, Firefox was widely hailed as the answer to all our browser security prayers. Since the launch of version 1.0 in November, those unrealistically high hopes have been dashed by the release of one security patch after another, plugging holes that left Firefox users at risk from hackers.
Most recently, two vulnerabilities rated as "extremely critical" by security firm Secunia were leaked before Mozilla developers had patched them, leaving users wide open to malicious code installing itself on their computers. Having been aware of the bugs for several days before they were leaked to the public, however, Mozilla released the version 1.0.4 patch just three days later.
Plenty of pundits have proclaimed that this quick response just goes to show the superiority of the open-source development model. I have to admit I feel better knowing that scores of volunteer developers are standing at the ready to jump in and defend their baby whenever it's threatened.
I'm not qualified to say if Firefox is really safer than Internet Explorer, but I do know that my old Windows 98 desktop system was rendered practically unusable by massive quantities of spyware until I switched to Firefox. Since then I have found occasional spyware, but nothing like the levels I saw with IE. On the rare occasions when I venture out onto the Web using Internet Explorer, I feel as if I'm wearing a big target on my forehead. When I'm done, I immediately run all my anti-spyware programs so I can feel relatively safe again.
But you know what? All this talk of security is a little beside the point. It's true; I do feel more secure with Firefox than with IE. But even if I didn't, I would have downloaded it to my new laptop anyway, because I love it.
I love the clean interface. I love the tabbed browsing. I love features like the Bookmark Manager and the Find toolbar. I love the endless potential for customization. I even love the name.
And I love that it's not made by Microsoft. Along with most of the rest of the world, I have always resented being force-fed a browser along with my operating system. For that reason, I resisted using Internet Explorer throughout the '90s, hanging on to Netscape for far longer than it deserved. Last year I was delighted to abandon IE for Firefox, a descendant of Netscape; the fact that it's a great product was icing on the cake.
Sure, Firefox occasionally has its little glitches. It's only 1.0.x software, after all. Doesn't matter to me; I'm willing to put up with a few bugs for the browser I love. (To be fair, for some Firefox users the problems seem to be more severe and far more frequent than anything I've experienced.)
Is "love" too strong a word to apply to a piece of software? I don't think so. I've had excited conversations with other Firefox users at parties--the kind of thing normally reserved for the latest gadgets or high-end stereo equipment--while IE users stood by and scratched their heads. Microsoft can copy all the Firefox features it wants for IE 7 and beyond, but it will never inspire the affection that Firefox does.
Scot Finnie, the editor of TechWeb's Pipelines, summed it up in his December review of Firefox 1.0: "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." That's exactly right, and that's why those of us who have discovered the joys of Firefox will continue to use it, whether officially sanctioned by our IT departments or not.
Many IT departments are themselves joining in the Firefox fun. IBM is perhaps the most well-known corporation to get behind the alternative browser, recently rolling out Firefox to its 300,000 employees.
It's true that many corporate applications require support for ActiveX, which Firefox doesn't do, or are otherwise tailored for Internet Explorer. I still use IE to access CMP's content-management tool, time-off request form, and other company tools, but I rarely use it for anything else. Why would I?
All the hype around Firefox's security holes and patches has simply shown us what we should have known all along: Firefox isn't bullet-proof. I can't abandon common sense when I use it. I have to keep up with security bulletins and download patches as soon as they're released. But I'd have to do those things with Internet Explorer (perhaps even more so) anyway, so why not use the browser that makes me happy?
I know, I know--Netscape 8.0 just came out, and some reviewers claim that it's even better than Firefox. Of course I'll download it and check it out, but it'll take a lot to replace Firefox in my heart.
Valerie Potter is Features Editor for the TechWeb Pipelines.
TechWeb's editors are busy assigning and editing and linking and otherwise creating the content you see on TechWeb.com and the Pipeline sites, but we wanted the chance to tell you what we see and what we think about it directly. So, each week, The TechWeb Spin will bring you the informed insight and unique perspective of a different TechWeb editor: Fredric Paul, Scot Finnie, Tim Moran, Stuart Glascock, Mitch Wagner, and Cora Nucci. We hope you like it, and even if you don't we hope you take the time to tell us what you think about it.