The browser that finally broke Microsoft's monopoly just got its first major update. If you haven't switched from Internet Explorer yet, consider Firefox 1.5 your invitation to do so.
This new release (Win 98 or newer, Mac OS X 10.3 or newer, Linux, free at http://www.mozilla.com/ ) looks almost like its predecessor, but it's worth downloading for that very reason. It incorporates useful improvements without forcing users to learn anything new.
Most important among them is a security update mechanism that should solve a common dilemma. The users more likely to stumble across a malicious site are often least likely to remember to install security updates that would protect them from the bad site's break-in attempts.
Earlier Firefox releases would notify users of new updates, but in a manner too easy to overlook. And users who did think to click on that cryptic red-arrow icon would then have to download a fresh copy of the browser and sit through the same setup experience as a user installing the program for the first time. Now, when a new version is available, Firefox 1.5 will notify you prominently, download just a small updater file and use that to patch itself.
Better security is one reason many have dumped Internet Explorer for Firefox, which can't run the Web-hosted ActiveX programs so often used to hijack Microsoft's browser. But Firefox has needed security patches of its own to fix vulnerabilities. Its open-source development process, in which anybody can inspect and edit its programming code, has helped speed those fixes, and now users should have much less trouble taking advantage of them.
As with previous releases, Firefox 1.5 blocks pop-up ads. These controls are supposed to block more pop-ups in this version, but I haven't noticed any real difference. Ads coded to sneak by pop-up blockers seem to be as obnoxiously present in this version as in the old one. (I am still waiting to see the companies stupid enough to buy such invasive ads get their just punishment in the market.)
If security issues lead people to Firefox, tabbed browsing tends to keep them there. This option allows you to view multiple pages in one window, switching among them by clicking on tabs. It's ridiculously efficient compared to keeping separate windows open -- it's much faster to click on a tab in plain view than to use the Alt-Tab keys to cycle through every open window.
Firefox 1.5 makes only two changes to its implementation of this concept, both unobtrusive but helpful. You can rearrange tabs by dragging and dropping them left and right, and you can click a button in its Options window to force links that would open in new windows to open in new tabs instead.
That Options window (on a Mac, it's called Preferences) features more subtle rewriting. It puts tabbed-browsing choices under their own category instead of filing them under an "Advanced" category and makes many secondary settings easier to employ. For instance, to delete cookie files set by one site doesn't require looking through a long list — just type the site's name in a search form.
A "Clear Private Data" command will wipe out all the records Firefox keeps of your browsing — cookies, saved passwords, cached pages and so on. A private-browsing option like the one in Apple's Mac-only Safari that suspends this recording process would have been helpful but isn't offered.
Three other changes can accelerate and enliven everyday browsing. The Back button now brings you to the last page viewed almost immediately. When Firefox finds a site that offers an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed of its content, it puts a clickable icon in the address bar, a more obvious location than its earlier, bottom-of-the-window notification. And support for a couple of new Web-design standards called Canvas and SVG brings new kinds of Web interactivity within reach.
As before, you can run a Google search from the box at the top-right corner or direct that search to one of a handful of other search sites by choosing them from a drop-down menu. The find-in-page command remains a marvel of efficiency, whisking you to matching text on a page as you type a query. Secure sites are prominently flagged by highlighting the address bar gold and citing the site's domain name at the bottom of the window, a step that should make it easier to spot fake phishing sites that don't offer secure logins.
This Firefox release falls short on a few areas, though — there's no form auto-fill command to save you from having to type in your address at Web stores. You can't save an entire page, images and all, in a single archive file. And you can't easily remove search engines from the list of shortcuts in Firefox's search bar.
Management of bookmarks is a particular weakness, compared with what could have been accomplished. Not only do you still have to click on a "Properties" icon or select a right-click command just to rename a bookmark, Firefox 1.5 doesn't offer any automatic-organization options like those provided by most music programs. You can't ask it to tell you what sites you visit most or least often or at particular times of the day.
With this update, Firefox lengthens its lead over IE and stays ahead of Netscape (which AOL has turned into a two-headed monster that incorporates parts of both Firefox and IE) and Mozilla (the too-complex ancestor of Firefox). The Opera browser is a different case: It's now free and runs faster and uses less memory than Firefox, but it's also a bit more difficult to decipher. Safari, meanwhile, fits much better in Mac OS X but fails to display features in some sites that work fully in Firefox.
Sometime next year, these browsers will face new competition from Microsoft. The software giant recently renewed its efforts in IE, and it's going about this work in a remarkably open way. Its programmers are documenting their work and soliciting input online (http://blogs.msdn.com/ie/) and have even cooperated with other browser developers to standardize some user notifications.
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The results may be impressive; Microsoft has shown it can do its best work when it's challenged by tough competitors. But for now, it's time to say goodbye to IE.