A case for Firefox

You either have to love or run screaming from the hype cycle these days, particularly when it comes to Google and its products. We’ve seen it with hype over Chrome OS (which I regard as very limited), Google Docs (in the context of it being a Microsoft Office killer), Gmail and more. In some cases I think the hype is justified. Gmail revolutionised email with much bigger mailboxes, threaded conversations and dozens of innovations over the years. Google Docs is great for relatively simple document creation and innovation but it is hardly going to replace Microsoft Office in the near future.

Where I take issue with the hype is when it comes to Chrome and Chrome OS. I have already written about Chrome OS so I won’t write about that again but I haven’t really written much about Chrome, the browser. Most of the reports about Chrome say that the browser is fast and it is. It is really fast. I have a development version on my Mac and it loads in about 4 seconds. Firefox 3.6b5, on the other hand, loads in about double that amount of time.

One of the big attractions that Chrome has is that it is extensible (at least, the current betas on PC and Linux are – I believe – and the current Mac dev version is). This means that Chrome supports a range of extensions that extend its functionality beyond the basic browser. This was one of Firefox’s big advantages over Internet Explorer from the start and it remains a big plus for Firefox. The extension ecosystem for Firefox is pretty well developed and varied.

Chrome does a couple other things that make it a great choice. One of these things is how Chrome runs each tab as a separate process so even if a single tab crashes, the rest of the browser continues on. Chrome has done really well. As Duncan McLeod points out in a recent post on TechCentral:

In a short time, Chrome has unseated Safari to become the third-largest computer Web browser. Its market share is still only about 5%, but the speed at which it has overtaken Opera and Safari is telling.

I agree that Chrome is a great browser and it sits on my dock alongside my default browser, Firefox. I have lately been thinking about kicking Safari off my dock (applications I remove from my dock are basically the apps I don’t really see as that essential but are not useless enough to be deleted) and sticking with Firefox and Chrome. Whether Firefox will become largely irrelevant and fade away into obscurity as Duncan suggests it might in the coming years, I don’t know. I really hope that doesn’t happen because Firefox is important to us all, even in the face of Chrome. One of the reasons I say this is because of Firefox’s history:

It is important to remember that Firefox was born as an alternative to Internet Explorer which is possibly one of the worst applications that Microsoft has inflicted on Web users for a variety of reasons, not least of which is security and a disregard to Web standards. It rose out of the ashes of the bloated Netscape browser suite (I remember using the first Netscape browsers – I go that far back). I still remember the excitement as Firefox neared a 1.0 release (I managed to convince my last firm’s IT department to let me use Firefox rather than IE) and I have been using Firefox on and off ever since.

Firefox, to me at least, represents a vital movement that works to improve my Web experience. I have been disappointment with previous versions because of really slow load times (it turns out a lot of this depends on your extensions and, besides, just how fast must the browser really be when loading?), relatively slow browsing and even because it has seemed a little clunky compared to Safari’s simplicity. What I have found, though, is that I have become more and more passionate about Firefox despite Chrome. Chrome is interesting, it is fast and it has a big appeal. At the moment it just doesn’t have what it takes to persuade me to give up Firefox. The dev/beta versions for the Mac don’t have a working bookmark manager, font controls in the Mac beta and there are operating system compatibility issues with some of the extensions (that struck me as weird).

On the other hand, Firefox works pretty much the same on Windows, Mac OS and Linux. The extensions I prefer will work and enhancements like Weave make for a pretty seamless experience between browsers running on different platforms. To paraphrase Apple (ironically given Apple’s and the Mozilla Foundation’s philosophies), Firefox works. I recently had an opportunity to test a Nokia N900 and one of the apps I installed first was Firefox 3.5 beta for the N900.

Firefox is one of the few modern browsers that supports so much HTML 5. I don’t know if Safari supports HTML 5 (Chrome does) but I believe that IE is lagging far behind. I may be wrong on a technical level but it seems to me that Firefox already supports the next generation of offline Web apps and location based services. Its probably fair to say that it won’t be too long before all modern browsers support HTML 5 but I find it encouraging that Firefox has had some degree of support since Firefox 3.5.

I’d be lying if I tried to argue that Firefox has far more advanced functionality than Chrome or Safari. In many respects it does have better functionality or just functionality other browsers lack but most of the differences are fairly subtle and come down to that classic yardstick: personal pr
eference. Despite all the hype about all the things Chrome can do and will be able to do, it is important to remember that Firefox does most of that stuff. In fact, aside from Firefox’s ACID 3 test results (can someone please explain the importance of this test?) and ring-fencing each tab as a separate set of processes, I can’t think of what Chrome does that Firefox doesn’t do, even if it is a little slower. Just as Firefox has innovated in the past and laid the groundwork for what we are seeing now (including Chrome which I believe to have been developed partly by Firefox engineers), it is going to continue to innovate going forward. We should see Firefox 3.6 release in the coming months (Firefox 3.5 was released just a few months ago) and there are plans for 3.7 and 4.0 in the year ahead.

Another aspect of Firefox that has a big appeal for me is the fact that it is developed by a community of passionate and independent developers. In contrast, Chrome was built largely by Google (the underlying code is open source) and I believe it is being developed to fit Google’s agenda for the broader Web. I think I just have a thing for the underdog and despite being the number 2 browser at the moment, Firefox is still the underdog on the Web that also happens to be excellent software. I believe that having a more independent initiative like Firefox that is not so closely aligned to any particular influencer like Google or even Apple is important. Firefox, in a sense, keeps the industry honest with its commitment to Web standards.

Firefox isn’t as trendy as Chrome and I can see the usual trendy folk on Twitter proclaiming Chrome the second coming of Google and the irrelevance of all other browsers but besides the fact that many of them are probably too young to remember what came before Firefox and the impact Firefox had, Firefox was around and thriving before Chrome and will continue to do so as long as there are people passionate about the browser.

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Update: I had a couple other stray thoughts. It took a while for them to return to be processed by what passes for my mind (I may keep adding to this list …):

  • Firefox has a working and pretty effective bookmark manager that lets me edit my bookmarks – still waiting for that from Chrome;
  • As cool as search being integrated into Chrome’s Omnibar is, Firefox’s Awesome Bar is even better (just add search and Ubiquity and its a no-brainer)



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  1. Francois Botha avatar

    Keep in mind that Chrome has a super-fast and advanced Javascript engine, V8, which is actually a totally separate project on its own. Firefox uses Tracemonkey, but I believe V8 is the future. Especially with web apps becoming more client-side oriented.

    V8 is one of the main reasons I use Chrome.

  2. pauljacobson avatar

    I never really understood the differences between Javascript engines. What makes V8 better than Tracemonkey? Is it just a speed issue somewhere in the code or is there a more fundamental difference? Could Mozilla improve Tracemonkey to a point where it is just faster and therefore better?

  3. Francois Botha avatar

    It's all a bit technical for me too, but this gives you a good idea: http://amix.dk/blog/viewEntry/19341“ rel=”nofollow”>http://amix.dk/blog/viewEntry/19341

  4. pauljacobson avatar

    Thanks, that is a pretty interesting comparison between V8 and Tracemonkey. If Mozilla wanted to, could they swap the Javascript engines?

  5. Francois Botha avatar

    Far from being an expert, I suspect V8 was designed as being pluggable but that the integration with Mozilla's UI platform (XUL and Gecko) will be problematic. Mozilla's code is too old for such big design changes. I'm willing to be proved wrong though.

    In any case, IE aside, the competition between Mozilla (Gecko + Tracemonkey) and Chrome (Webkit + V8) is what will drive the web forward. Competition is always good for the consumer.

  6. Rudy avatar

    As far as I can tell, with the new beta for Chrome, if you install extensions (much of the same ones that are available for Firefox), you can install a working bookmark manager e.g. like foxmarks.

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