RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Browse Firefox to open some windows on the world

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Do you even know that there’s a browser in common use besides Microsoft’s Internet Explorer? If not, don’t feel bad. IE has some 80 percent of the browser market, if “market” can be defined as “where you give everything away to get mind share.”

Frustrated with Microsoft and IE, the techies of the world have written their own browser through a mighty effort coordinated by Mozilla, a California-based not-forprofit ( It’s called “Firefox.” Currently, it has roughly 15 percent of the market, depending on the source you consult, with the remaining 5 percent split between specialized browsers like Opera and Safari for the Apple Mac.

Firefox is radically different in spirit and execution from IE. Firefox isn’t really written by Mozilla; it’s written by thousands of developers worldwide, as volunteers. Unlike IE, whose basic code is protected by pit bull lawyers, Firefox’s code is open to the world, and they like it that way. So do I. It’s fast, versatile and tolerably secure. It has long possessed features that Microsoft laboriously wedged into IE only in the current version of IE 7.

But does any of that matter to the business user? Apparently not. In point of fact, you can often tell how technically minded somebody is by his choice of default browser. A couple of weeks ago, a business user stopped by my desk to talk about something, and noticed I was using Firefox. He asked me why I used it, having never tried it himself.

That’s not surprising, considering that IE comes with Windows, and Firefox doesn’t. Further, most business IT departments don’t suggest Firefox to their users. You really have to keep up with techie literature to know about it. As I explained Firefox’s features, I could tell his interest was rapidly transmuting into politeness, and that he thought its virtues overblown. For him, they would be.

For techie folk, Firefox’s virtues begin with its status as firmly non-Microsoft. This antipathy toward Microsoft isn’t just a gruff quirk. Microsoft has a history of keeping its hard, scaly fingers wrapped around its software even after it’s been sold.

For example, when I downloaded the upgrade to IE 7, Microsoft’s Web site made sure to “validate” my local copy of Windows. Presumably, it wouldn’t have authorized the download if it thought my Windows was pirated. I have no idea what I would have done if my valid copy had been misidentified.

Firefox does no such thing. You download it. You own it. You can do anything you want with it, within the very liberal terms of its license, which essentially requires that if you tinker with the code, you let others see what you did. Firefox is “open source,” so its basic code is available to everybody. It’s an ongoing community barn-raising. That by itself recommends it to techies, who tend to value sharing very highly.

To me, Firefox’s features make browsing a little easier. It pioneered tabs, for example, so I can keep many sites open without the bother of many separate windows. Unlike IE, which pops up a separate search window, Firefox’s search will scan a page as you type in a search bar, so you don’t have to type the whole query and then click “Search.” It knows you want to search, and does so continuously as you type. Firefox suppressed pop-up windows before IE did. And it has a separate download manager that keeps track of what you’ve downloaded and runs it for you. Under the hood, Firefox is known to be far more secure than IE, although Microsoft is supposedly shrinking that distance.

Firefox’s open-source approach has led to an explosion in third-party (generally free) add-ons, more than a thousand by last count ( These are small programs that work with Firefox, but aren’t suited to be permanent Firefox features. They let you do things like view a Yahoo! map without opening a new tab, or disassemble Web pages to get at the technical guts. You don’t find this kind of extensibility for IE.

But does all this make Firefox a better business choice? I can’t say it does. IE is catching up to Firefox’s feature set, and it already does almost all of what businesspeople need to do. In addition, specialized Web sites such as distance learning classes often rely on IE-specific functionality and they frequently misbehave in Firefox. IE is already familiar territory, it comes with Windows, and it doesn’t spontaneously choke and die today as it did so often in the past.

If you want to switch to Firefox, I applaud your choice, but I can’t recommend it for most business work. If you want to preserve an aura of hipness, though, you can use IE in the solitude of your cubicle, but wear Firefox-branded apparel, available from the Firefox site.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at

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