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.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 19, 2004

26 Min Read

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 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.

Pros: There are two ways to open Web windows. With Internet Explorer, every Web page you open launches a separate program window. The result is often a blizzard of open IE windows and the ongoing headache of switching among them. The other way is the method that virtually every other Web browser (and many IE add-ons) uses: tabbed browsing.

Tabbed browsing adds the ability to open multiple Web windows within one browser program window. When opened this way, each Web page has a labeled tab that runs across the top or bottom of the screen (similar to program tabs on the Windows taskbar). It's a paradigm that many people prefer because the size and location of the browser doesn't change, and unless you choose to open more, there's only one open browser window.

Firefox offers a very low-overhead version of tabbed browsing. There's very little to configure, and it works pretty well. What it does, it does well.

Cons: Unfortunately, there's a long list of nice-to-have things that Firefox's tabbed-browsing feature doesn't do that are worth toting up:

  • You can't change the order of Firefox's tabs. They appear in the order they're created. The ability to reposition them using drag-and-drop is an obvious omission that Mozilla should rectify.

  • You can't leave tabs open when you close the browser and have them reappear automatically the next time you launch Firefox.

  • You can't name and save sets of tabs to be re-opened later. Firefox's bookmark feature lets you do something that approximates this: you can open all bookmarks in a folder. But that presupposes that the seven Web pages I want to open later are already in my bookmarks, tucked away safely in a single folder. There should be an ability to create tab sets. Of the many extra features that were streamlined out of Firefox, this is one that it would Mozilla would do well to add in a future version of the browser.

    Update: A Firefox extension called Session Saver was designed to provide exactly this functionality, but at press time it had not been properly updated to work with Firefox 1.0. I was able to install it after a fashion, and I found that it works to both save tabs between sessions and also provides a way to name and save tab sets. So whenever Session Saver is updated for Firefox 1.0, it will be a welcome addition to Mozilla's newest browser.

  • You can't highlight several tabs and close them simultaneously.

  • You can't close a tab window from the context menu for the Web page it displays. The right-click menu that appears when you click any blank area on any tab window doesn't offer you the ability to close its tab. There are several other good ways to close a tab (including right-clicking the tab label itself), but this obvious way has been ignored.

  • Finally, while a last-minute rearrangement of tab-browsing options in the 1.0 release of Firefox was a welcome improvement, it doesn't get us all the way there. The "Open links from other applications in ... a new tab in the most recent window" selection configures the browser so that when you click a URL in an email or instant messaging window, the new Web page opens in a newly created tab of your already open instance of Firefox, instead of opening another new Firefox program window.

    But for those of us who prefer to greatly limit the number of instances of the browser program, it doesn't provide a default behavior for one of the more prevalent causes of new-browser opens. Webmasters can easily force a new instance of a browser by adding a simple attribute to any hyperlink on any Web page. What Firefox still needs is an additional option to "Open tabs instead of new windows for links on a Web page."

    This easily implemented customization neatly solves the problem by adding a new tabbed-browsing option in the Tools > Options > Advanced dialog. If you want to reduce extra browser windows on your desktop, be sure to carry out this quick fix. Once you've completed the customization, be sure to put a check in the box beside "Force links that open new windows to open" and make your preferred behavior choice. There's also a Firefox extension called Tab Clicking Options (version 0.2.1 or newer) by Twanno that gives you additional control of your tabs. (Being able to find quick solutions to petty annoyances is one of my favorite things about Firefox.)

    Pros: Not only is it easy for you to customize Firefox, it's very easy for other people to have an idea about how to improve the browser and then make it available to everyone for free. In fact, Firefox was designed from the ground up to accept third-party skins, called Themes, and browser add-ons of all sorts, called Extensions. Firefox's Tools menu gives you access to Extensions and Themes Web sites that provide lists of these browser upgrades and an easy way of installing them.

    At press time, there were just under 50 Firefox themes available, each of which offers a different look and feel. There were also almost 100 Firefox extensions, many of which are small (under 100K) modifications or tweaks to the interface that provide some new bit of functionality or control. You're very likely to find at least of couple of Firefox extensions that interest you. If this browser rises in popularity, as well it might, expect to see a lot more extensions. It's a powerful aspect of Firefox that should leverage the nature of the open-source community.

    Of course, Internet Explorer supports ActiveX controls, Browser Help Objects, and toolbars. And many of these have been developed over the years. (In fact, Microsoft offers its Windows Marketplace of third-party IE customizations and add-ons.) But ActiveX controls have become as much a liability to IE as they've been a help because of security issues. Firefox could face the same problem. Although Mozilla is marketing the product as a safer browser than IE, that's not technically accurate. If Firefox's market share grows significantly, you can expect that its vulnerabilities, whatever they are (and every software program has them), will be tested as well.

    Firefox provides characteristically simplistic tools for managing Themes and Extensions. Until the version of IE6 found in Windows XP SP2, Internet Explorer didn't even provide a user interface for managing third-party browser add-ons. The Firefox Extensions tool offers the basics: A link to the Mozilla site where you can browse for new extensions, an Uninstall button, an Update button, and an Options button. It's what you need, nothing more. The Themes tool is very similar.

    Cons: The only shortcoming of the Extensions functionality is that so far it doesn't seem to be updated very frequently. Many of the extensions that were available in pre-releases of Firefox have updated versions for Firefox 1.0, but those aren't shown as being available from Mozilla's site. You need to surf over to the home pages for each extension and find the newer versions, if available. Mozilla, please keep this as up to date as possible.

    Pros: Mozilla has introduced a new RSS-enabled feature called Live Bookmarks. It's a very simple idea that works with just a tiny bit of additional interface. When you surf to a website whose RSS feed is properly implemented to support Live Bookmarks, an orange icon appears on the right side of Firefox's status bar. When you click it, it offers to add the RSS feed. When you accept, it adds the feed to Firefox's Bookmarks. It's a very elegant solution. Kudos to Mozilla's programmers for doing this in such a simple way.

    Cons: The only problem I have with Live Bookmarks is the way it is organized and displayed in your bookmarks. The tool simply throws a new Live Bookmark to the bottom of your bookmarks. There's nothing that visually distinguishes a Live Bookmarks folder and its contents as being different from all other bookmark folders and links — but they are different, and the have different properties. I suggest that Mozilla create a special folder in Firefox's Bookmarks, like the Bookmarks Toolbar Folder, called Live Bookmarks. This folder should have something visually different about it, as should the links it contains.

    Downloads Manager

    Pros: Firefox's basic downloads manager is a boon, and another feature that improves on what Internet Explorer offers. Microsoft ditzed around with adding a downloads manager in the SP2 version of IE6, but what's there certainly can't be called that.

    Like everything else in Firefox, the Downloads tool is minimalist. It can work in either of two ways. In the more basic way, it creates a default download location (the default is your desktop) where all files downloaded through Firefox will appear. The Downloads user interface shows all your download files and offers very basic functionality. It can Open (run) or Remove (delete) files individually, Clean Up (delete them all), and open your designated download folder. Check properties for each individual file to find out basic things like where the file came from on the Internet, where it's stored on your hard drive, and the date of download.

    The slightly more advanced way is a radio button you'll find in the Downloads area of the Options dialog labeled "Ask me where to save every file." This is the way I recommend that you work. It lets you create a separate destination folder for the download, and you can rename the file if you want to. It's best to save all program installers you download (at least until they've been superseded by one or two newer versions), and place them in folders that designate their program name and version number.

    There is just enough functionality in this tool to make it work for most everyone, and nothing more.

    One other thing bears mentioning: the Downloads area of the Options menu is where you'll find Firefox's plug-ins manager, which displays primarily media-oriented browser plug-ins that are installed, such as Acrobat, QuickTime, Flash, and so on. The Plug-Ins tool lets you disable or enable the installed plug-ins, and nothing more.

    Cons: There are a few abilities we'd like to see in Firefox's downloads manager. When you specify your download location, it would be great if there were an option to set a default starting point, which you might set to something like C:\Downloads. OK, so this is a nitpick, but some of us download a lot.

    More importantly, Firefox's Downloads misses the opportunity to openly capture and display information in the manager window, such as file size, when downloaded, where downloaded from, and where downloaded to. Of course, ideally it would display program version number, but there's no way for it to do that with today's Internet.

    Pros: Internet Explorer's "Organize Favorites" tool is abysmal. I said that flat out to Microsoft back in 1997, and provided their marketing folks a list of recommended improvements. Over lunch, I was told that Microsoft didn't think anyone cared about Organize Favorites. Well, B.S.

    Mozilla gets it. Firefox's Bookmarks Manager is a discrete tool offering a tree view on the left and single folder contents view on the right. Its paradigm couldn't be more familiar. It also provides separator lines that you can add with a click of a toolbar button. You can add and subtract columns with details like Last Visited and Description. There's a long list of ways you can automatically sort your bookmarks, including, incidentally, Unsorted. You can export bookmarks to an HTML file. You can import them from Opera and Internet Explorer. It's been a long, long time since I've seen a major browser package with bookmarks facility as thoughtfully and fully featured as Firefox's. This is one place where Mozilla didn't play the just-enough game. Firefox's bookmarks are the new standard.

    Cons: My only complaints about Bookmarks in Firefox have little to do with the Bookmarks Manager. They're about context menus, or the pop-up menus that appear when you right-click a blank space on any Web page or a bookmark.

    This is my biggest pet-peeve in Firefox, if someone would just write a Firefox extension that solves this problem, I would happily shut up. (Or maybe I'll write it myself.) There's no way in Firefox to save a bookmark to the desktop by right-clicking any blank area of a loaded Web page and choosing something like "Save bookmark to desktop." Internet Explorer has this feature, and I use it every day. You can drag and drop the URL icon from Firefox's Location bar to your desktop, and that accomplishes the same thing. I don't know about you, but my desktop is usually a little covered over with running apps. Not convenient. Update: A Firefox extension called DeskCut, written by Evan Eveland, became available on November 21 that delivers the functionality I was looking for.

    The other drawback is about renaming individual bookmarks in the Bookmarks Manager or any toolbar. There's no "Rename" option on a Firefox bookmark's right-click menu. In order to rename a bookmark, you have to choose Properties from the context menu. Internet Explorer has a Rename menu item that opens a simple dialog for that purpose. Mozilla has two menu entries, "Rename" and "Properties," both of which open the same Properties dialog. (While this method isn't very elegant, at least users at all levels can figure out how to rename a bookmark.) The Firefox decision to rely solely on the "Properties" dialog is one of the few bad decisions in a program jam-packed with shrewd design trade-offs.


    Pros: Microsoft's Internet Explorer toolbar system was literally a masterpiece beginning with IE 4.0. It's been tweaked very little since. And the toolbar system is a big part of why Microsoft's browser excelled in the late 90s. To their credit, Mozilla's engineers recognized this too, because they replicated 90 percent of IE's toolbar functionality for Firefox.

    Firefox lets you take the air out of the top of the browser window. If you want to, you can put the Location bar next to the main menus and put the Search box next to the main toolbar, loosing an entire row of stuff at the top of the browser. You can turn off the Bookmarks Toolbar (aka Links bar in IE), or any of the other bars. You can also heavily customize the Bookmarks toolbar with common destinations, and create drop-down menus containing other common bookmarks. Even the tabs take up as little vertical real estate as possible while maintaining discoverability. The user interface aesthetic — not the look and feel — is identical to the thinking behind IE's toolbar structures. But because of the Bookmark Manager's strengths and the tabs, the overall result is much stronger than what Internet Explorer delivers.

    The toolbars are also fully customizable. You can drag-and-drop or rearrange toolbar buttons or bookmarks on any toolbar. You can create custom toolbars. You can add separators, invisible spacers, adjust the size of icons, add or remove text, and a host of other options. Like Microsoft Word (and other Microsoft Office apps), the drag-and-drop customization abilities are in vogue whenever the Customize Toolbar box is open. (Unlike Office apps, the Alt key doesn't let you do this even without the Customize Toolbar being open.)

    All in all, Firefox is the only browser that lets me work with toolbars and bookmarks at least as well as I work with the same corresponding features in IE. For me, anything else would have been a deal breaker.

    Cons: There are a few peccadilloes with Firefox's toolbars. The user-interface process for rearranging entries on live toolbars, in Customize Toolbars, in the Bookmarks Manager, and on the Bookmarks menu is not consistent. Each of these constructs has a slightly different way that it needs to be manipulated. In some places, you need to know to press Shift or Ctrl at the same time you rearrange icons. In other places, that's not necessary. And the Alt key works in some places but not others. Baaah!

    Another shortcoming is the size of the Web search bar. It's too short! I'd like to lengthen it by at least 20 pixels but there's no option for doing that exposed in the user interface. Thankfully, an anonymous author offers the ResizeSearchBox Firefox extension through ResizeSearchBox solves the problem with an elegant graphical resize bar (or thumb) found on the Customize Window palette. If you're running Firefox right now, click this link to initiate the installation of ResizeSearchBox to check it out.

    One of the few things Mozilla opted to leave out is an icon sizing/presentation option labeled "show selective text on the right." It's used to make the toolbar smaller by eliminating text descriptions for all but a few of the icons whose functions are less readily understood. Of course, Firefox provides pop-up toolbar button tips, so this is a minor thing.

    Pros: With a 4.8MB download size and an installation routine that runs like silk, there's not much to be upset about in this area. Firefox's installation gives you Typical or Custom installation options. The main reason to opt for the Custom option is to install in a directory other than the default directory. Before you know it, the installation is done.

    Firefox also automatically, at your option, imports from Internet Explorer a host of settings, including Internet options, Web site favorites, browser history, saved passwords, saved form information, and cookies. Saying that doesn't really get across what it means; what it means to anyone who was using Internet Explorer regularly prior to Firefox's installation is that you can pick up where you left off in IE using Firefox henceforth. About the only thing you'll probably have to clean up is Bookmarks and the Links bar/Bookmark Folder bar, if you used that in IE.

    People have picked on Firefox because Java and Flash, as well as possibly some other plug-ins you might be using, aren't automatically carried over to Firefox. A previously installed version of Acrobat carries over automatically (well, version 5.0 did, anyway). There may be issues in this area that I haven't discovered, but the plug-ins thing seems minor to me.

    Cons: When Firefox is installed on a Windows XP (and presumably Win2000) machine that has multiple users configured for people sharing a single a computer, Firefox's installation routine doesn't stop to ask you whether you want the program installed for all users or just the current one. It installs it for all users. That's unfortunate because if one of the other users decides to uninstall the program in their login, that program will disappear from all users. If two people are sharing a computer, and only one wants Firefox installed, that's not possible the way Firefox installs now. Other programs that are more Windows-aware handle this by asking you whether you want to install a program for one user or all the users. This is something that Mozilla needs to fix, and soon.

    I love the IE importation features, but I wish that Mozilla had allowed us to specify from what machine we want to import IE settings, favorites, and saved data. The routine can only take that information from the machine you're installing from. It would save me tons of time if I could tell the important routine to get all that information from a different machine on my network.

    Options and the Rest

    Pros: There is a lot more to Firefox that I'm afraid I'm just going to lump together. The browser's Options area, accessed from its Tools menu (sound familiar?), is well designed, and far less overwhelming than similar configuration dialogs from other applications. What's more, there are small little managing utilities sprinkled throughout the Options area. I mentioned the Plug-Ins tool earlier. There's also a Password Manager and a little button that checks for available updates to Firefox in the Advanced > Software Update area. The software-updating user interface should be under the Help menu, by the way, not buried in Advanced options.

    Speaking of help, the built-in documentation has pluses and minuses. The basic Firefox Help file is well designed and fairly well stocked with information. The Mozilla Firebird Support site adds many additional tidbits. There's also a Help file aimed specifically at Internet Explorer users (which reminds me a lot of Word 6.0's inclusion of Help for WordPerfect users). Be sure to check out the Firefox Keyboard Shortcuts and Mouse Shortcuts support pages.

    The downside to Firefox's help facility is that unlike Internet Explorer and most every app Microsoft writes these days, there's no context-sensitive help. To access this in Microsoft software, click the question-mark icon in the upper right corner and then click it on anything in a program you don't understand.

    There are a couple of additional large issues that require a few words. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 is the de facto standard for enterprise Web applications. Most content management systems, for example, require it. And that includes the one used by CMP Media and TechWeb. Firefox performs most but not all functions in that content management system. And there are many other enterprise software types that will be tripped up by the use of Firefox. Additionally, there are many Web sites out there that require the use of ActiveX controls, something that Firefox doesn't support. Microsoft's Windows Update and ClearType sites are good examples. Neither will work with Firefox. So you're not going to be able to get rid of IE entirely. Hopefully those obstacles will change with time.

    What I can tell you is this: Firefox 1.0 is so far the best alternative to IE of all the browsers I've ever tested. Opera and the previous generation of Mozilla are very close, but Firefox seems to me to be the best at offering IE compatibility.

    Another major advantage of this product is that Firefox is multi-platform and can be installed on multiple versions of Windows (it was tested on Windows XP for this review), Mac OS X, and Linux/Unix.

    Performance and reliability of operation are an open question with Firefox. In my testing I've had very little trouble with the program. I've only had one issue, and I'm not altogether certain it was a problem with Firefox. I was ordering something on Amazon, and the site just become unresponsive to clicks. A few minutes later, it worked fine.

    But some other people have reported issues to me, such as slow performance (compared to IE) and crashing when multiple browser instances are open. Nothing I can replicate, but since the browser is so new, issues like this bear watching.

    This pipelining trick, provided by Mozilla as an "experimental" feature, reportedly speeds up page-load performance. For more tips like this one, see the Mozilla Firefox Support area's Tips & Tricks page. If you have a yen to customize Firefox, this is the place to start. Hey, maybe I will figure out how to add that Save Web Page to Desktop context menu item.

    I think it's likely that Microsoft will, at last, upgrade Internet Explorer in some serious way. But the software giant has also said that it will no longer release versions of Internet Explorer separate from the operating system — which means it will either have to do yet another service pack release of Windows XP (I don't see this happening, other than patch roll-ups), or we'll have to wait for Windows Longhorn to get a truly upgraded Microsoft browser. And there's no guarantee that Microsoft will be able to deliver the goods in time for Longhorn with anything other than a couple of trumped up features (tabbed browsing, maybe a download manager, and I'm not holding my breath on a revamped Favorites manager). By then we'll be into some future version of Firefox.

    When you get right down to it, I'm not going back to Internet Explorer 6.0. Mozilla just put paid to seven years of Microsoft browser hegemony on my desktop. How about yours?

    Scot Finnie is Editor, the Pipelines and TechWeb, as well as the author of Scot's Newsletter and previously an editor with Windows Magazine, ZDNet, and PC/Computing. He has been writing about Windows and other operating systems for two decades.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights