Firefox 2 (and Internet Explorer 7)

Firefox 2 is gold. You can read about it and download it here.

I’ve been using it for about a month in the form of betas and release candidates, all via Firefox Portable. Firefox Portable is not official, and it’s designed to be run from removable media like a USB flash drive. It doesn’t leave any trace of itself on the host computer, the point of which is to maintain the user’s privacy. I think it’s a great safeguard against the potential dangers of beta software.

I find it very interesting that Internet Explorer 7 and Firefox 2 came out of beta within a week of each other, even if it is a coincidence. It’s reminiscent of the browser wars of the late 1990s, which Netscape lost. Depending on who you ask, this is now the “second browser war.”

Frankly I like the look of the buttons in IE7 better than those in Firefox 2. But Firefox is skinnable, and I won’t be at all surprised to see an IE7 skin show up for it. It’s interesting how much effort Microsoft has put into getting the interface out of the user’s way; In full screen mode, the interface hides above the top of the screen. (Curiously, the status bar remains at the bottom, but it can be toggled normally.) I actually think that the buttons are a little scrunched in IE7. I’d like a little more room between the forward and backward buttons, and I’d like them just a little bit farther from the top left corner.

I like how IE7 combines the Go and Reload buttons. Once a page is loaded, the Go button becomes the Reload button. At times while using several browsers I have reach a point where both buttons seemed like they would get me what I wanted, but I felt slightly uneasy as I was unable to determine a functional difference between the two. I hope that Microsoft has move the functionality around correctly (although my uneasiness may have been completely unwarranted), but they have certainly done away with the ambiguity. I’ll take that.

Both browsers should take a lesson from the Google Toolbar — it allows search results to appear in a new tab. Neither Firefox 2’s nor IE7’s built in search bar open results in a new tab, nor do they offer the user the option of that behavior. Nine times out of ten when I perform a search on Google it’s because I want to know more about the subject of the page I’m currently reading. I don’t want to stop reading it. I shouldn’t have to launch a new tab, navigate to it, and then perform my “convenient and built in search.” This should be one step. This single feature is the only thing keeping the Google Toolbar installed on (both) my browsers.

If this is a second browser war, I don’t see any party getting wiped off the face of the earth the way Netscape was. The market isn’t black and white any more — it’s fragmented. Mac OS has Safari. Windows has IE. The tech-minded have adopted Firefox, but it’s reaching beyond them. Then you’ve got Opera, Konqueror, Camino … There are options. The market (if you can call it that) has matured a lot in the last ten years.

Additionally, you don’t see companies like Virgin Records slapping giant “Only compatible with Internet Explorer” messages at the bottom of their homepages anymore. Ten years ago, I’d guess that big companies looked at the Internet and still couldn’t see it for more than an alternative to TV. Perhaps they thought of IE3 and Netscape Navigator like television networks — you’ve gotta pick one and only one. Now, I think the mindset is inclusion rather than exclusion. Companies want their content to reach as many eyes as possible, and that means offering compatibility with as many browsers as possible. That leads to compatibility. That leads to standards.

Another reason I don’t see this as much of a war is because different browsers aren’t pitching new, incompatible rendering technologies. Browsers want to be able to render the most popular websites. They must — or users will abandon them. Assuming all browsers render pages relatively accurately, all that’s left to draw users into their camp are speed and interface. I personally switched to the Mozilla browser because it offered tabs. I hated dealing with all my IE6 windows on the Windows XP taskbar. Tabs were a joy, and still are. If not for tabs, I don’t think IE7 would exist today. Firefox had tabs to get users to seriously consider the switch. It had speed to keep them. If Firefox had loaded pages slower than IE, many users would have gotten frustrated and stayed with IE.

I have no plans to stop using Firefox. Version 2 is better than version 1. It appears (to me) that it loads pages more quickly than IE7. IE7 won’t let me see my Gmail (which I load up in https) until I hit OK on the “secure and unsecure items” dialog box. That is enough to keep me from switching. It’s enough to keep me from even considering the switch.

IE’s come a long way with its interface. A long way. The fact that there is a team at Microsoft means that incremental features will roll out. Firefox will need more innovations than it’s had in two years. Competition will benefit the consumer.

Anyway, if you haven’t downloaded IE7, download it and install it (assuming you’re on Windows). If you haven’t downloaded Firefox, go download version 2 and install it. Then make it your default browser.

Firefox 2 (and Internet Explorer 7)