BitDepth 549 - November 07

The Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser enters its second major release and demonstrates surprising maturity...
Up from the ashes

The Mozilla Foundation's official Firefox page

Once upon a time, long, long ago, the web was the almost exclusive domain of Netscape Navigator, a browser that was groomed out of the free lab research project Mosaic, an early web browser created by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
The road from there to here is long and torturous, spiked with Netscape Communications' underestimation of Microsoft's capacity to compete in a market it had previously ignored, internal company problems and a business model that petered out before income picked up.

The Netscape team was bought up by AOL, who then proceeded to shelve their new product, cutting a deal with Microsoft to use Internet Explorer as their browser.
Netscape eventually died through neglect and AOL mercifully didn't bury the code that had married the term "surfing" with a computer screen, releasing the source code for the browser under an open source licence.

The Mozilla Foundation was formed in 2003 with a commitment of $2 million from AOL and a licence to modify and develop the code, which is centred on the Gecko rendering engine that the Foundation's browsers use to display web pages.
After developing the Mozilla suite (an updated and rebranded version of Navigator) for several years, Mozilla's developers changed focus with Firefox, the former Navigator browser stripped down to its web display essentials and reengineered for speed. The other key component, e-mail, is being developed as a parallel project called Thunderbird.

Firefox's popularity began in the same sphere that Navigator first found favour, with serious computer users who wanted to use the best browser. Firefox's rise also coincided with a laissez faire approach to Explorer development, which Microsoft had driven to an almost unbeatable share of the browser market by bundling the product with its operating system and offering it for free download. Between 2001 and 2005, little was done with the Explorer code base.
But problems were developing with Explorer, which was tied so tightly to Microsoft's Windows Operating System that hackers could use it as a backdoor into user's computer systems.

Firefox had fewer problems and began to gain market share. It could be said that the incremental but steady growth of Firefox is the reason that there is an Internet Explorer 7 today. More secure browsing, tabbed windows and strict adherence to web code standards are all part of Explorer 7, but they were available in the first version of Firefox.
The rendering engine used by Firefox is also available in Mozilla branch project called SeaMonkey, a refurbishing of the original Navigator all-in-one browser-editor-mail client. The Foundation also offers the mail client separately as Thunderbird and develops a calendaring programme called Sunbird, which is also available as a mail-enabled version called Lightning.

The Gecko engine also is also used in the free browser Camino, written natively for Mac OSX and in Flock, a "social browser" designed for fans of Flickr and other web sharing sites.
Firefox was recently updated to version 2, after dozens of minor updates since its introduction (the last revision was 1.5.07).
The casual buzz on Firefox 2 is positive. Local Windows users report improved stability, and the new arrows that indicate tabs which don't fit in the tab bar have both fans and detractors. Previously, Firefox squeezed tabs into the tab bar until they became unreadable little pills.
The irritating capacity of Firefox to slowly leak memory, resulting in a steadily growing use of RAM also appears to have been fixed.

If you've used Firefox before, it won't surprise you to learn that most extensions will have to be updated. Extensions are small code plug-ins that add to the capabilities of the basic Firefox browser, ranging from cosmetic changes to adding a chat client and an FTP upload engine.
Each tab now has its own close button and tab handling is generally improved. RSS feed handling is improved, phishing protection is now built in (flagging faked websites), and the killer feature for this new version is session restore, which will return your browser to where you were last in the event of a crash. Closed a tab by mistake? Type Shift-Control-T (Shift-Command-T on a Mac) and the closed tabbed window will reappear.
If you have never used Firefox, prepare yourself for a world of fun.

Migration is easy, just download the appropriate version of the browser and import your existing browser's bookmarks through the Firefox bookmark manager.
Extensions make Firefox a surprisingly flexible browser, and while some of these code add-ons can make the browser unstable, changing the look of the browser to your taste and adding features you'd rather not switch to another application to use can be addictive..
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