I first switched to Firefox as my primary web browser before the 1.0 release (around 0.6-0.7, if I recall) because it was an open-source alternative, and Mozilla itself was (and still is) a bit heavy for my taste. I was running on limited hardware, and memory wasn’t something I had excess of. The feature set of Mozilla was impressive, to be sure (a web browser, mail client, IRC client, and more), but by that logic, Emacs is an attractive tool as well.
Firefox was a dramatic departure from the old design of Mozilla (which inherited much from the venerable Netscape), positioning itself as a sleek, lightweight browser with an emphasis on performance and stability. In the years since I first adopted it for daily use, it has become one of the primary contenders for “Most Popular Web Browser“, with some estimates suggesting it won that battle in early 2009.
Given the range of browsers one can choose from (Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Internet Explorer, and a number of much less popular browsers), why would one choose Firefox over the others?
The bane of Internet usability, some might say. You’ll be innocently surfing a site, and BLAMMO. An unsolicited window appears and covers what you were doing.
At best, it’s some web monkey’s idea of a “helpful navigation tool“, or more likely, it’s some form of advertising. Maybe a dancing animated GIF that makes you want to claw your eyes out, or a horrible flash animation, complete with theme song. Maybe it’s just a quiet banner telling you to enlarge your penis. Whatever it is, it’s annoying, and it interferes with your ability to browse in comfort.
Firefox puts you back in control, and blocks pop-ups, alerting you when it does, and allowing you to see only the pop-ups you decide you want to see.
Tabbed browsing allows multiple pages to load in one browser window, giving you a means of selecting which one you want to view (tabs, which generally display the title of the page for easy scanning). This keeps your taskbar uncluttered, and makes managing your information intake that much easier.
While browsing a site with many links, the temptation may arise to click one (or more) of them, but if each interesting link takes us to a new page, the back-and-forth navigation hampers our ability to read the original item of interest.
Tabbed browsing presents a clean solution, opening each interesting link in a new tab (without leaving the current page), and consumed at your leisure. No interruptions, and yet nothing missed.
Bookmarks are a convenient way to remember the places we like, and get back to them often. Live Bookmarks can syndicate RSS and Atom feeds from sites that support such things, pulling the latest headlines directly from the site, and into your bookmarks, so you will always be up-to-date with the latest information on your favourite sites.
A lot of people add search bars to their browsers, often one for each engine they use. Google, Yahoo, and others…. it can clutter your browser pretty fast. Firefox comes out-of-the-box with several popular search engines accessible from one conveniently located search box, and Google set as the default. If your favourite is not on the list, a few clicks can usually solve that: just select whatever engine you want from a list of hundreds of supplemental search plugins.
Browser doesn’t match your wallpaper? Your mood? Your icons? Firefox themes are easy to install, just find one you want (usually on the Themes site), and click ‘Install Now’.
As services move deeper into the cloud, your web browser becomes the central hub for your daily computing activities. Given this increasingly personal role, it becomes all the more likely that the development team will not predict all the uses for the web browser. Extensions come in to fill this void, adding features that are not universally required (and thus not part of the browser core), while still being useful.
Note: The world of web browsers is an ever-changing landscape. In the time since I wrote this (November 2005), many of these features have become commonplace (Pop-up Blockers and Extensions, for instance), and a new contender has risen (Google Chrome).