By Hiawatha Bray, The Boston Globe Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Nov. 22--This column gets results. A few months ago I suggested that Internet users would do well to give up on Microsoft Corp.'s buggy and insecure Internet Explorer browser and check out some well-crafted alternatives. And so you have, in a big way.
In the past two weeks, Internet users have downloaded over 4.5 million copies of Firefox, the excellent browser available for free from the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation. Yes, there are hundreds of millions of IE users, but Firefox is gaining fast, and IE is losing market share for the first time in years. The switch to Firefox will happen even faster as more people realize the full power of this browser, much of it provided by computer hobbyists who are scrambling to create a cornucopia of useful add-ons.
They're called extensions, handy programs that fit seamlessly inside Firefox and augment its original functions. There are dozens of them, ready to do for you just about anything IE will do and a bunch of stuff you never even thought about before.
What's the latest weather? There's WeatherFox, an extension that will pop up the most recent forecast in a corner of your browser. Do you enjoy music while you surf? Check out FoxyTunes, which adds a toolbar with controls for your favorite music player. How fast is your Internet connection? Bandwidth Tester will tell you at the touch of a button.
Try a few for yourself. For the browser, go to www.getfirefox.com. Once it's installed, use Firefox to return to the site and then scroll down the page and click the Extensions link.
All of these gadgets are being hammered out by talented amateurs with time on their hands. The Mozilla Foundation is glad of the help; indeed, it was counting on it.
"We've designed our software to support extensions," said Ben Goodger, lead designer of Firefox, "and we've put a lot of things in it with extensions in mind."
Lots of people know that stuff. Firefox users get free access to the fruits of their effort, and the Mozilla Foundation gets one more weapon in its campaign to make Firefox the Web's dominant browser.
Firefox will need plenty of help, despite its deserved reputation as a safer way to visit the Internet. Public disgust with computer worms and spyware attacks, many of them made possible by security flaws in the Microsoft browser, gave Firefox a toehold in the market.
Microsoft has issued some major repair patches, but the company says it won't offer a total browser overhaul, because that will come in a couple of years with its future operating system, codenamed Longhorn. Too bad for Microsoft that nobody wants to wait till 2006 for a safe browser. Throw in a lingering and well-founded distrust for the world's biggest software company, and plenty of people were ready for an alternative.
But browser-switchers often pay for their disloyalty to IE in the form of compatibility problems. Some sites are designed around IE and studded with features that don't work properly in Firefox.
Here at the Globe, we do a lot of research using Factiva, an online database run by the Dow Jones and Reuters news services. It's an excellent resource, but only for those running IE. Factiva and Firefox don't get along. Or visit the Blackamericaweb.com site run by talk radio personality Tom Joyner. Some of that site's features don't like Firefox at all.
It shouldn't happen that way. Websites ought to be designed in accord with the universal standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium in Cambridge.
But for many designers, the temptation to use Microsoft's specialized features was irresistible. They especially like ActiveX, which basically lets the Microsoft browser install new software on a Web surfer's machine.
Since ActiveX is also used by worm and spyware writers to smuggle their code onto computers, Firefox doesn't use it. This is a key reason why it's a safer browser than IE, but also a barrier when visiting some websites.
Indeed, one of the Web's most important sites requires ActiveX: Microsoft's Windows Update page, where you download the latest security patches for the operating system. Windows users should run this feature at least once a week to keep their computers safe, and you'll need IE to run it. It's a clever way for Microsoft to keep IE users loyal.
Microsoft also gets help from Internet companies that have created popular IE browser extensions. The Google Toolbar, with its pop-up blocker and built-in search window, is probably the most famous, but there are lots of others.
I'm especially partial to Pluck, a wondrous program that will keep an eye on key websites for new and interesting information.
For instance, Pluck can flag you whenever someone auctions a rare Ted Williams baseball card on eBay or when Amazon offers a new book on the athlete. Pluck can also track updates on your favorite websites. It's a great piece of software, but, like the Google Toolbar, it's IE-only. Giving up the Microsoft browser means sacrificing your favorite IE tools.
Happily, the Firefox extenders are assembling worthy rivals to IE's offerings. PRGooglebar, for instance, does everything the original Google bar does, except for blocking pop-ups, which Firefox already does. As for Pluck, the company has received so many requests from Firefox users that it plans to offer a compatible version sometime next year.
Microsoft's even getting the message. Just last week, the company said it's considering short-term upgrades to IE, in response to growing demand. And Microsoft has launched a website promoting dozens of IE extension programs, an obvious bow to the popularity of Firefox add-ons.
For the first time in years, Web browsing is getting better. All it took was a few million Firefox downloads, a growing inventory of enhancements, and a vital nudge of encouragement from your humble columnist, of course.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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