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How Firefox Works

A Web browser is sort of like the tires on your car. You don't really give them much daily thought, but without them, you're not going anywhere. he second something goes wrong, you definitely notice. !hances are, you're reading this article on "nternet #x$lorer. "t's the browser that comes already installed on Windows o$erating systems% most $eo$le use Windows, and most Windows users don't give a second thought to which browser they're using. "n fact, many $eo$le aren't aware that they have an o$tion at all. &$tions are out there, however '' some $eo$le call them (alternative browsers,( and one of them has been steadily chi$$ing away at "nternet #x$lorer's dominance. "t's called Firefox. From its origins as an offshoot of the once $o$ular )etsca$e browser, Firefox is building a growing legion of dedicated users who s$read their enthusiasm by word of mouth *or blog+. "n this article, we'll find out what makes Firefox different, what it can do and what effect an o$en'source browser might have on the "nternet landsca$e .

1treamlined
Firefox is a relatively sim$le a$$lication without a lot of extra features and $lugins included that many users won't need. his kee$s the file si/e small, and it means that Firefox will run well even on older com$uters without using u$ a lot of system resources. Firefox $ro$onents claim it's also more resistant to crashing.

Firefox ,asics
he easiest way to learn about Firefox is to go ahead and download it *it's free+. You can find it at the official site- htt$-..www.mo/illa.org.$roducts.firefox.. "f you're hesitant to install and learn to use a new $rogram, rest assured that Firefox looks and acts very similar to "nternet #x$lorer and most other Web browsers. here's even a feature for "# users that lists the ex$ressions you're familiar with and tells you the corres$onding Firefox names for those functions. At the to$ of the screen, you'll find a bar for ty$ing in Web addresses, a small search $anel and a row of buttons '' the ty$ical tools for common Web'surfing activities. Forward, back, home, reload and sto$ can all be found in this basic setu$. hese buttons, like 0ust about everything else in Firefox, are fully customizable. You can rearrange them, get rid of some of them or add new ones.

)ow, if Firefox is so similar to "nternet #x$lorer, why bother switching2 here are 3uite a few reasons, but the most im$ortant for many users is security. here is much debate over the security of Web browsers, stemming mainly from "nternet #x$lorer's vulnerability as a common target for hackers and virus writers. 4icrosoft regularly releases $atches and u$dates to fix security holes in "nternet #x$lorer that might allow someone to install malicious software or steal information from a com$uter. Firefox has not been the focus of hackers so far, but that doesn't mean it's inherently safer. For now, Firefox is en0oying a re$rieve from viruses and hackers $rimarily because, com$ared to the wides$read use of "nternet #x$lorer, it is relatively obscure. Hackers haven't bothered ex$loiting Firefox yet, because the low yield means it wouldn't be worth their efforts. "f Firefox ever achieves dominance among Web browsers, that can be ex$ected to change. 1ee the Firefox 1ecurity section to learn more. "n the next section, we'll take a closer look at Firefox's features and see how they can be ex$anded.

)ow hat's Advertising


"n 5ecember 6778, a two'$age ad ran in the )ew York imes $romoting Firefox. he main text readAre you fed u$ with your Web browser2 You're not alone. We want you to know that there is an alternative. he s$onsors of the ad were more than 97,777 Firefox fans who donated money to $romote their favorite indie browser. he ad was intended to coincide with the release of Firefox 9.7 in )ovember 6778, but $ublication was delayed '' it took until 5ecember to figure out how to s3uee/e the names of more than 97,777 underwriters into the s$read.

Firefox Features and #xtensions


Firefox comes with a few useful features that set it a$art from "nternet #x$lorer. &ne of the most noticeable is tabbed browsing. "f you are browsing in "nternet #x$lorer, and you want to visit a new Web site while kee$ing your current one o$en, you have to o$en a com$letely new browser window. "ntensive Web surfing can result in browser windows cluttering u$ your taskbar and dragging on system resources. Firefox solves that by allowing sites to o$en in se$arate tabs within the same browser window. "nstead of switching between browser windows, a user can change between two or more different sites by clicking on the tabs that a$$ear 0ust below the toolbar in Firefox.

Firefox features "tabbed browsing."

You can o$en a new, blank tab from a menu or by clicking on the ()ew ab( button that you can add to the toolbar. Firefox also has a built-in pop-up blocker. his $revents annoying ads from $o$$ing u$ in front of the browser window. You can configure it to let you know when $o$'u$s are blocked and to allow certain $o$'u$s from certain sites. his lets you enable $o$'u$s that are useful windows as o$$osed to unwanted ads. Although "nternet #x$lorer also has built'in $o$'u$ blocking, it was actually the develo$ment of this feature in early versions of Firefox that forced 4icrosoft to include it in "nternet #x$lorer. &ne feature of Firefox that is vital to some users is that it is a cross-platform application. hat means that Firefox works under several different o$erating systems, not 0ust Windows. For now, all versions of Windows from :; and u$ are su$$orted *as well as Windows :<, though it's a bit more difficult+, along with 4ac &1 = and >inux. here's another notable Firefox feature that might be the coolest. "t's like when someone asks you what you'd wish for if you could only have one wish, and you say, ("'d wish for unlimited wishes.( Firefox extensions mean the browser has an almost unlimited number of features, with new ones being created every day. 1till, the $rogram remains fairly small, because users only add the extensions they want to use.

All of the extensions that have been added to Firefox show up in the Extensions anager! which allows them to be configured or uninstalled easily.

?unior high school students $robably don't need stock market tickers, while $eo$le doing serious research don't necessarily need an 4@A $layer built into their browser. "f there's a feature from another browser that you really like, chances are someone has made an extension so that it can be included in Firefox. Where do all these extensions come from2 hey're a $roduct of Firefox's open source nature *see What does (o$en source( mean2+. )ot only is the code to Firefox available for examination and use, but Firefox $rovides develo$er tools for free to anyone who wants to create an extension. B$ next, we'll check out some of the best extensions available for Firefox as of February 677<.

hat's Funny.
Abe (igoda $tatus ' ells you in real'time whether Abe Digoda is alive or dead Egg)n ' Hel$s you make the $erfect egg * must not fear+ ' 5is$lays the ,ene Eesserit *(5une(+ litany against fear in a dialogue box when you click on (" must not fear( in the ools menu

he ,est #xtensions
Firefox extensions range from the indis$ensable *ad blocking+ to the utterly silly *an extension that changes the &$tions menu's definition of (!ookies( from a technical ex$lanation to (!ookies are delicious delicacies(+. Here are a few of the more notable extensions.

"hemes ' hemes are technically a se$arate category from extensions, but they all do the same thing '' they change how Firefox looks. here are a few do/en themes to choose from on the official Firefox site. "f you want your browser to look like it's made out of wood or have big, brightly colored icons or look sleek and futuristic, there's a theme for you. You can change it every day if you want to. #ictionary $earch ' his extension lets you select any word in the text of a Web site, right click and select (1earch 5ictionary( from the menu. hen, a new tab o$ens with an "nternet dictionary's definition of the selected word. %estures ' 4ouse gesturing is a feature taken from another alternative browser, &$era. When this extension is installed, users can execute various common Web surfing commands by holding down the right mouse button and (gesturing( in a certain direction with the mouse. A gesture to the left takes you back one $age, while a gesture to the right takes you one $age forward. You can customi/e the gestures and combine them *a down'then'left gesture minimi/es the browser window, for exam$le+. Foxy"unes ' his extension $laces a small control $anel on the Firefox toolbar, allowing users to control any media $layer software from within the browser.

Foxy"unes and ForecastFox

ForecastFox ' his $o$ular extension $uts a short'range weather forecast in your toolbar. You can select your location *or several different ones+, how many days you want in the forecast and whether you want only daytime forecasts or both days and nights. &adial'ontext ' 4ost browsers give you a dro$'down menu of o$tions when you right'click on a Web site. he Cadial!ontext extension livens this u$ by giving you a small dial of gra$hical o$tions *sort of like the controls on your car stereo + instead of that $lain text menu.

&adial'ontext

Ad ,lock ' here are several different ad'blocking extensions available in addition to the $o$'u$ blocking Firefox has built'in. hese extensions allow users to block some or all banner ads and other advertisements that a$$ear on Web $ages. 1ome use a list of known ad servers or block images from servers with the words (banner( or (adserver( in the domain name. &thers dis$lay ads normally, but if a user finds a $articular ad exce$tionally annoying or obtrusive, he or she can right'click on it and choose to remove it in the resulting dro$'down menu.

,efore and after using the remove-ad feature

)ext, we'll take a look at how secure Firefox is, es$ecially in com$arison with "nternet #x$lorer.

Firefox 1ecurity
Firefox's relative obscurity is really its biggest $lus when it comes to $rotection. Aside from that, Firefox sim$ly handles security differently than "nternet #x$lorer. Where "nternet #x$lorer uses security zones, which can sometimes be confused by malicious software, Firefox does not rely on /ones. Also, Firefox does not use digital signatures, which are verifications $rogrammers can $urchase. "f you try to install software on your com$uter, "nternet #x$lorer checks to see if the digital signature matches the actual vendor of the $rogram. @eter orr, a $rogram manager at 4icrosoft, $ointed this out as a serious flaw in Firefox's security. However, a digital signature is not a guarantee of safe software, either. "t 0ust means that someone $aid for the signature, and there have been cases of fraudulent signatures being issued. Another security issue involves Active- controls. Active= is built into "nternet #x$lorer and allows certain Web sites to automatically download scri$ts or execute small a$$lications. While the absence of Active= in Firefox does mean that some sites will not be viewable, it also closes many security holes% in this case, Firefox chooses security over functionality. Another as$ect of Firefox vs. "nternet #x$lorer security is the fact that Firefox is an open source $rogram. his means that anyone can access the code the $rogram is written in. hat might sound like a bad idea, because you're giving $otential hackers access to the code% but in fact, the o$$osite is true. here are far more $eo$le who want to close security holes than there are hackers who want to ex$loit them. Having thousands of $eo$le looking over your code and hel$ing to s$ot $roblems means that most security flaws will get fixed very 3uickly. "n fact, the develo$ers of Firefox even offered a (bounty( of F<77 and a t'shirt to anyone who successfully s$otted a bug in the $rogram. "n the next section, we'll find out where Firefox came from and who develo$ed it.

he History of Firefox
he origins of Firefox can be traced directly to )etsca$e, a com$any whose Web browser, )etsca$e )avigator, was the dominant browser before 4icrosoft develo$ed "nternet #x$lorer. he internal com$any name for the browser was ozilla. #ventually, )etsca$e released the source code for )avigator under an o$en source license, meaning anyone could see and use the code. A non'$rofit grou$ was set u$ to direct the develo$ment of browsers using this code. his grou$ became the 4o/illa Foundation in 677A. However, Firefox is not the browser the 4o/illa grou$ would have released if everything had gone as $lanned. >ike )etsca$e )avigator before it, the 4o/illa software was becoming bigger and bigger as more features were added in '' a $roblem in software develo$ment known as (feature cree$( or (bloat.( #nter ,lake &oss, a com$uter enthusiast who first started hel$ing out the 4o/illa $ro0ect as a hobby when he was 98. "nstead of acce$ting feature cree$, Coss decided to start develo$ing his own 4o/illa'based browser, focusing on a streamlined and sim$le version. 1oftware develo$er #ave .yatt also $layed a ma0or role. Coss was 0oined by ,en %oodger in 677A, and develo$ment $rogressed ra$idly from that $oint. When Firefox was still in the beta stage *when a $rogram hasn't been $ublicly released, but $eo$le can download and use it to hel$ find and fix $roblems+, it was already generating a healthy bu// among tech'savvy Web surfers. 1ince the official release on /ovember 0! 1223, an estimated 6A million $eo$le have downloaded Firefox *as of February 677<+. Web tracker &ne1tat.com re$orted on )ovember 66, 6778, that "nternet #x$lorer's share of Web

browser use had dro$$ed five $ercent since 4ay of that year. Firefox had a user $ercentage of 8.< $ercent. "ts $o$ularity is growing, but it has a long way to go before it really challenges "nternet #x$lorer as the main browser on the )et. "n the next section, we'll see how this new browser has the $otential to change the "nternet as we know it.

Firesomething
At first, the browser that would be known as Firefox was known as 4hoenix. here were trademark $roblems, however, so the name was changed to Firebird. Another software com$any had a $ro0ect known as Firebird, so the name was again changed. Firefox was chosen because it was distinctive, and no one else was using it *although it turned out a #uro$ean com$any owned the trademark to the word Firefox, a deal was reached+. he fre3uent renaming led to a running 0oke among Firefox develo$ers and an extension called Firesomething that accom$lishes one thing#very time Firefox is loaded, instead of 4o/illa Firefox, the to$ of the screen shows a random combination of two words. You could be browsing with 4o/illa Firecow or 4o/illa >ightningkangaroo. his article was written while using 4o/illa 1$aceemu. !lick here to download the Firesomething extension.

Firefox and the Future


5oes Firefox mean anything more than another o$tion for users fed u$ with what they $erceive as slow develo$ment and ram$ant security $roblems with "nternet #x$lorer2 "t might. As Firefox grows in $o$ularity, 4icrosoft feels more $ressure to com$ete with added features of its own. "n a sur$rise move that industry analysts attribute to Firefox's success *but 4icrosoft attributes to "#G security risks+, 4icrosoft now $lans to release "nternet #x$lorer H se$arately from the newest version of the Windows o$erating system, code' named >onghorn, which is scheduled to hit the market in 677G *see )ews.com- Ceversal)ext "# divorced from new Windows+. "f Firefox reaches a certain critical mass of $o$ularity *$robably around A7 or 87 $ercent+, it will start getting a lot more attention, and not all of it welcome. he efforts of hackers focusing on the u$start browser could cause security $roblems. he result might be an ongoing, ever'escalating arms race as $rogrammers race to $atch security holes and hackers find new ones '' much like the current situation with "nternet #x$lorer. Higher usage rates will also remove one of the (features( of Firefox that a$$eals to many users '' it's something different. he fact that Firefox is based on o$en source code also has im$lications. )ot only is the $rogram free to download and use, but also the code is freely available '' to look at, develo$ inde$endently and release in an altered form. "t is likely that some develo$ers will grow dissatisfied with the direction of Firefox and s$linter off to form their own version. Already, there are alternate builds of Firefox available, though they lack the stability of the official release.

Who @ays for the "nternet2


&ne $ossible $roblem with Firefox is its ability to easily block advertisements on Web sites. Although some ads are obtrusive and annoying, they also $ay for the huge amount of information available on many sites *like this one+. "f $eo$le can 3uickly and easily avoid seeing those ads, Web sites will have to find a new business model for $roviding content while turning a $rofit. &ne survey indicates that Firefox users are less likely to click on Web ads than users of other browsers, but this seems to be more an indication of greater "nternet savvy than of ad'blocking IrefJ. &ne solution to the $roblem- Advertisers need to create better ads, ones that aren't malicious or dece$tive. Ads that mimic Windows error messages or system dialogue boxes are universally hated, while flashing, blinking and scrolling ads are distracting for almost everyone. he $roblem may not be as serious as some think. Cemoving all banner ads on Web $ages doesn't come built into Firefox '' users have to install an extension. "f Firefox's market share grows, it will reach more users who are less technically inclined '' users who are less likely to seek out and install extensions.