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Nov./Dec. 2004 - Vol. 4, Issue No. 64

By Scot Finnie


  • Firefox 1.0: The New World Wide Web Champ | Top Product!
  • Recommendations on the 2005 Norton Products
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    Firefox 1.0: The New World Wide Web Champ | Top Product!
    Last updated: January 3, 2005

        - Tabbed Browsing
        - Extensions and Themes
        - RSS Integration
        - Download Manager
        - Bookmarks
        - Toolbars
        - Installation and Importation
        - Options and the Rest
        - Conclusion

    If browsers were baseball, Mozilla's Firefox would be the Boston Red Sox. For years, Mozilla (and Netscape before it) has been the underdog that success has eluded. But looking at Firefox now, a little over a week since it bowed in final form, the word that comes to mind is believe.

    Firefox 1.0 is the first Web browser since October 1997 that deserves serious consideration by the entire world of desktop PC users. On October 1, 1997, Microsoft released Internet Explorer 4.0, which was a far better browser than any other then on the market. And despite efforts by Opera, Netscape, Mozilla, and others it has retained that mantle ever since.

    In recent years, Microsoft — which once tirelessly strove to improve Web browsing — has nodded off on its laurels. After all, there's apparently no real money to be earned by improving Internet Explorer. And since IE is bundled with Windows, the market-share mountain is so steep that few competitors have risen to the challenge.

    Well, score one for open source, because Firefox is a triumph of the alternative development model, and a truly a great Web browser. With this 1.0 release, Mozilla has shown that the impossible can happen (see screenshot).

    Formula for Success
    There are a lot of things to like about Firefox. When you analyze the program, the reasons for its likeability begin with the same concepts that propelled Internet Explorer into the limelight in 1997:

    1. Less is more, but make sure it has what people really need.
    2. Make it very, very easy to use.

    Firefox shies away from the basic premise of its big brother, the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Mozilla 1.7.x Navigator browser suite. Although there's a companion Mozilla email application (codenamed Thunderbird) nearing completion, Firefox is not a big suite of Internet apps that includes email, newsgroup reader, Web-page creation tool, and other bells and whistles. It's a Web browser and nothing more.

    While streamlined, the Firefox feature set is nevertheless up-to-date compared to Internet Explorer 6.0. It provides pop-up blocking (as does the Windows XP Service Pack 2 version of IE 6), tabbed browsing, a download manager, RSS integration, integrated toolbar search, browser skins (called Themes), browser add-ons (called Extensions) that readily access and change the user interface, and full support for open-standard Web specifications, including CSS. Many of the features Firefox extends are very simple. There aren't a lot of options and user configurations. The long-standing 80:20 design principle — provide 80% of the features people need and skip the other 20% — seems to have been adopted with a vengeance. I might describe it as something more like 70:30, but as you'll see, that's a recurring theme.

    Another browser company, Opera Software, elected to take the same less-is-more approach Mozilla chose for Firefox. The twist is that Opera did that back in 1996 or so. What's more, its installer download size is about 1.3MB smaller than Firefox 1.0's installer. The reader might well then wonder why I'm not praising Opera to the skies the way I am Firefox. Opera's programmers are ingenious, and they've developed many excellent features no one else has really matched. But there's one thing they haven't done — they haven't paid close attention to solid user-interface design. The Opera browser suite is quirky, doesn't make great use of screen real estate, and its blizzard of menu items and options approaches the overwhelming, even for more experienced users. Opera has improved quite a bit over the years, but its overall design still marches to its own drum. That's good for many things, but not for user interface design.

    Firefox is the anti-Opera. Although it borrows many user-interface design principles from Mozilla's older browser line, the developers have also clearly spent a *lot* of time studying Internet Explorer. This is precisely the approach that Microsoft used when it won over word processing and spreadsheet users back in the '90s. You don't win a marketplace by baffling them with amazing new features. You win them over by giving them what they want with a user experience that closely approximates what they already know.

    More than anything else, this is the smartest aspect of what Mozilla has done with Firefox. It's a realistic browser, a worthy successor to the Navigator line. It's a browser that inspires an emotional response. You don't have to learn to like it with your left brain; you just like it. Here are the pros and cons of its best features.

    Tabbed Browsing

    Pros: In general, there are two ways in the world of Web browsers to open Web pages. With Internet Explorer, every Web page you open launches a separate program window. The result is often a blizzard of open IE windows and the ongoing headache of how best to switching among them or close them. The other way is the method that virtually every other Web browser uses: tabbed browsing.

    Tabbed browsing adds the ability to open multiple Web windows within one browser program window. When opened this way, each Web page has a labeled tab that runs across the top or bottom of the screen (similar to program tabs on the Windows taskbar). It's a paradigm that many people prefer because the size and location of the browser doesn't change, and unless you choose to open more, there's only one open browser window to futz with.

    Firefox offers a very low-overhead version of tabbed browsing. There's very little to configure, and it works pretty well. What it does, it does well (see screenshot).

    Cons: Unfortunately, there's a long list of nice-to-have things that Firefox's tabbed-browsing feature doesn't have that are worth toting up:

  • You can't change the order of Firefox's tabs. They appear in the order they're created. The ability to reposition them using drag-and-drop is an obvious omission that Mozilla should rectify.

    December 22, 2004: Thanks to InformationWeek reader Jesse A. Coddington for writing to point out that a third-party extension, known as MiniT(drag+indicator) by Caio Chassot, adds the missing tab drag-and-drop functioality perfectly. I've tested it and I like it a lot. Unfortunately, MiniT is not listed on the Mozilla Extensions site. Even though this single-purpose extension is available, I still maintain that drag-and-drop tab repositioning is a basic functionality that Mozilla should include in a future version of Firefox. Some functionality just belongs.

  • You can't highlight several tabs and move, copy, or close them simultaneously.

  • You can't leave tabs open when you close the browser and have them reappear automatically the next time you launch Firefox.

    Thanks to Eric McIntyre for writing to point out that there's a built-in workaround that does something like the above. Firefox can permanently save multiple home pages. If you choose this option (at Tools > Options > General), every time you launch the browser it will open all the pages you've configured as your home page. This isn't precisely what I'm looking for. I want the browser to be able to save the last however many pages I was looking at and reopen them the next time I run the program. It's useful for when you have to shutdown suddenly but want to pick up where you left off. Nevertheless, the multiple home pages thing may work for some people, so it's worth mentioning.

  • You can't name and save sets of tabs to be reopened later. OK, that's an overstatement: You can't do it well. Firefox's bookmarking system merely approximates the name-and-save tab-set features found in some other browsers and browser overlays. Here's how to do it: With multiple tabs open to different Web pages, open Firefox's Bookmarks menu and choose "Bookmark This Page." Next, give the tab set a name and click OK. Although the result lets you open a set of tabs, it's messy. It works by creating a new folder in your regular bookmarks. The name given that folder is the name you gave your tab set. Every folder opened from the Bookmarks menu (not from the Bookmarks sidebar) contains the "Open in Tabs" option. When you click that, all the bookmarks in the folder open as individual tabs.

    Like a lot of things in Firefox (and Mozilla 1.7.3, which works similarly on this score), this is a head-slappingly obvious solution, seemingly elegant in its simplicity. But this one just doesn't work for me. I don't want to clutter up my already voluminous bookmarks with a whole bunch of tab sets. Also, you need to go to extra trouble to store tab sets neatly in bookmarks. There's no special Tab Set special folder that tab sets are automatically stored in — that might help a little. Of the many features that Mozilla opted to streamline for Firefox, the company would do well to go back and rethink named, saved tab sets for a future version.

    Happily, a Firefox Extension called Session Saver was designed to provide exactly this functionality. Session Saver hasn't been updated since before Firefox 1.0 was released, but a specific version of Session Saver, offered on the Extension Mirror website, installed and worked properly for me with Firefox 1.0. (I had minor difficulty with the other versions I've found.) Session Saver works to both save tabs between sessions and also provides a way to name and save tab sets. It's a highly useful Firefox extension.

  • You can't close a tab window from the context menu for the Web page it displays. The right-click menu that appears when you click any blank area on any tab window doesn't offer you the ability to close its tab. There are several other good ways to close a tab (including right-clicking the tab label itself), but this obvious way has been ignored.

  • Finally, while a last-minute rearrangement of tab-browsing options in the 1.0 release of Firefox was a welcome improvement, it doesn't get us all the way there. The "Open links from other applications in ... a new tab in the most recent window" selection configures the browser so that when you click a URL in an email or instant messaging window, the new Web page opens in a newly created tab of your already open instance of Firefox, instead of opening another new Firefox program window.

    But for those of us who prefer to greatly limit the number of instances of the browser program, it doesn't provide a default behavior for one of the more prevalent causes of new-browser opens. Webmasters can easily force a new instance of a browser by adding a simple attribute to any hyperlink on any Web page. What Firefox still needs is an additional option to "Open tabs instead of new windows for links on a Web page."

    Thankfully, there are some easily-configured customizations that neatly solve the problem. The Mozilla Firefox Support site offers instructions on how to Reveal More Tab/Window Options. This modification adds a new Tabbed Browsing setting in the Tools > Options > Advanced dialog that controls website-forced new browser opens. After you make this tweak, close and restart Firefox, open Options > Advanced, put a check in the box beside "Force links that open new windows to open," and make your preferred behavior choice. A second Mozilla customization, Decide Which New Windows to Block, allows small pop-up windows spawned by JavaScript to open as normal pop-ups instead of as new tabs in Firefox (which sometimes forces your entire browser window to shrink). I strongly recommend adding this customization too. Being able to find quick solutions to petty annoyances is one of my favorite things about Firefox.

    There's also a Firefox extension called Tab Clicking Options by Twanno that gives you additional control of your tabs, including being able to double-click any tab to close it. It let's you configure keyboard-mouse click combinations, such as Ctrl-click, to open, close, close all, duplicate tabs, and other functions. I definitely recommend it.

    Extensions and Themes

    Pros: Not only is it easy for you to customize Firefox, it's very easy for other people to have an idea about how to improve the browser and then make it available to everyone for free. In fact, Firefox was designed from the ground up to accept third-party skins, called Themes, and third-party browser add-ons of all sorts, called Extensions. Firefox's Tools menu gives you access to Extensions and Themes websites that provide lists of these browser upgrades and an easy way of installing them.

    At press time, there were 55 Firefox themes available, each of which offers a different look and feel of the browser. There were also approaching 150 Firefox extensions, many of which are small (under 100K) modifications or tweaks to the interface that provide some new bit of functionality or control. You're very likely to find at least of couple of Firefox extensions that interest you. If this browser rises in popularity, as well it might, expect to see a lot more extensions. It's a powerful aspect of Firefox that should leverage the nature of the open-source community.

    Of course, Internet Explorer supports ActiveX controls, Browser Help Objects, and toolbars. And many of these have been developed over the years. (In fact, Microsoft offers its Windows Marketplace of third-party IE customizations and add-ons.) But ActiveX controls have become as much a liability to IE as they've been a help because of security issues. Firefox could face the same problem. Although Mozilla is marketing the product as a safer browser than IE, that's not technically accurate. If Firefox's market share grows significantly, you can expect that its vulnerabilities, whatever they are (and every software program has them), will be tested as well.

    Firefox provides characteristically simplistic tools for managing themes and extensions. Until the version of IE6 found in Windows XP SP2, Internet Explorer didn't even provide a user interface for managing third-party browser add-ons. The Firefox Extensions tool (see screenshot) offers the basics: A link to the Mozilla site where you can browse for new extensions, an Uninstall button, an Update button, and an Options button. It's what you need, nothing more. The Themes tool is very similar.

    Cons: The only shortcoming of the Extensions functionality is that so far it doesn't seem to be updated very frequently. Many of the extensions that were available in pre-releases of Firefox have updated versions for Firefox 1.0, but they aren't shown as being available from Mozilla's site. You need to surf over to the home pages for each extension and find the newer versions, if available. Mozilla, please keep this as up to date as possible.

    For more about Firefox Extensions, check out the Scot's Newsletter's:

  • Customizing Firefox - The Best of Scot's Newsletter

    RSS Integration

    Pros: Mozilla has introduced a new RSS-enabled feature called Live Bookmarks. It's a very simple idea that works with just a tiny bit of additional interface. When you surf to a website whose RSS feed is properly implemented to support Live Bookmarks, an orange icon appears on the right side of Firefox's status bar. When you click it, it offers to add the RSS feed. When you accept, it adds the feed to Firefox's Bookmarks (see screenshot). It's a very elegant solution. Kudos to Mozilla's programmers for handling this in such a simple way.

    Cons: As it stands, Live Bookmarks is just right for casual use, but it's not ideal for many confirmed RSS users. My concerns about Live Bookmarks are similar to those expressed about the save-tab-set-as-bookmark feature discussed in the Tabbed Browsing section above. Live Bookmarks simply throws each new Live Bookmark to the bottom of your bookmarks menu. Again, like the save-tab-set-as-bookmark feature, there's no designated Live Bookmarks folder whose appearance and position are fixed within Firefox's Bookmarks. So if you use this a lot, you're left to the drudgery of organizing Live Bookmarks yourself. There's also a difference in the way Live Bookmarks appear in the Bookmarks sidebar vs. the Bookmarks menu. On the menu, individual Live Bookmarks all display Firefox's orange Live Bookmarks icon. On the Bookmarks sidebar, they don't. They either have no icon, or they have the icon set by the website they came from.

    I'd like to urge Mozilla to create a special folder in Firefox's Bookmarks, something akin to the Bookmarks Toolbar Folder, called Live Bookmarks. This folder should have something visually different about it, as should the links it contains (consistently in all parts of the browser). All Live Bookmarks should automatically be placed in this folder. As part of the process of adding a new Live Bookmark, it would be nice if the user were given the option to locate a Live Bookmark in a specific folder within the Live Bookmarks folder, to create a new folder, and to rename the feed.

    Downloads Manager

    Pros: Firefox's basic downloads manager is a boon, and another feature that improves on what Internet Explorer offers. Microsoft ditzed around with adding a downloads manager in the SP2 version of IE6, but what's there certainly can't be called that.

    Like everything else in Firefox, the Downloads tool is minimalist (see screenshot). It can work in either of two ways. In the more basic way, it creates a default download location (the default is your desktop) where all files downloaded through Firefox will appear. The Downloads user interface shows all your download files and offers very basic functionality. It can Open (run) or Remove (delete) files individually, Clean Up (delete them all), and open your designated download folder. Check properties for each individual file to find out basic things like where the file came from on the Internet, where it's stored on your hard drive, and the date of download.

    The slightly more advanced way is a radio button you'll find in the Downloads area of the Options dialog labeled "Ask me where to save every file." This is the way I recommend that you work. It lets you create a separate destination folder for the download, and you can rename the file if you want to. It's best to save all program installers you download (at least until they've been superseded by one or two newer versions), and place them in folders that designate their program name and version number.

    There is just enough functionality in this tool to make it work for most everyone, and nothing more.

    One other thing bears mentioning: the Downloads area of the Options menu is where you'll find Firefox's plug-ins manager, which displays primarily media-oriented browser plug-ins that are installed, such as Acrobat, QuickTime, Flash, and so on. The Plug-Ins tool lets you disable or enable the installed plug-ins, and nothing more. To find plug-ins for Firefox, check out Mozilla's Get Common Plug-ins area.

    Cons: There are a few abilities I'd like to see added to Firefox's downloads manager. When working in the "Ask me where to save every file" mode, it'd be great if there were an option to set a default starting point, which you might set to something like C:\Downloads. OK, so this is a nitpick, but some of us download a lot.

    More importantly, Firefox's Downloads misses the opportunity to openly capture and display information in the manager window, such as file size, when downloaded, where downloaded from, and where downloaded to. Of course, ideally it would display program version number, but there's no way for it to do that with today's Internet.


    Pros: Internet Explorer's "Organize Favorites" tool is abysmal. I said that to Microsoft in unvarnished terms back in 1997, and provided their marketing folks a list of recommended improvements. Over lunch, I was told that Microsoft didn't think anyone cared about Organize Favorites. Well, B.S.

    Mozilla gets it. Firefox's Bookmarks Manager is a discrete tool offering a tree view on the left and single folder contents view on the right (see screenshot). Its paradigm couldn't be more familiar. It also provides separator lines that you can add with a click of a toolbar button. You can add and subtract columns with details like Last Visited and Description. There's a long list of ways you can automatically sort your bookmarks, including, incidentally, Unsorted. You can export bookmarks to an HTML file. You can import them from Opera and Internet Explorer. It's been a long, long time since I've seen a major browser package with bookmarks facility as thoughtfully and fully featured as Firefox's. This is one place where Mozilla didn't play the just-enough game. Firefox's bookmarks are the new standard.

    Cons: My only complaints about Bookmarks in Firefox have little to do with the Bookmarks Manager. They're about context menus, or the pop-up menus that appear when you right-click a blank space on any Web page or a bookmark.

    This is my biggest pet-peeve in Firefox as it shipped from Mozilla. There's no way in Firefox to save a bookmark to the desktop by right-clicking any blank area of a loaded Web page and choosing something like "Save bookmark to desktop." Internet Explorer has this feature, and I use it every day. You can drag and drop the URL icon from Firefox's Location bar to your desktop, and that accomplishes the same thing. I don't know about you, but my desktop is usually a little covered over with running apps. Not convenient. There's a happy ending, though. A Firefox extension called DeskCut, written by Evan Eveland, delivers this exact functionality.

    The other drawback is about renaming individual bookmarks in the Bookmarks Manager or any toolbar. There's no "Rename" option on a Firefox bookmark's right-click menu. In order to rename a bookmark, you have to choose Properties from the context menu. Internet Explorer has a Rename menu item that opens a simple dialog for that purpose. Mozilla has two menu entries, "Rename" and "Properties," both of which open the same Properties dialog. (While this method isn't very elegant, at least users at all levels can figure out how to rename a bookmark.) The Firefox decision to rely solely on the "Properties" dialog is one of the few bad decisions in a program jam-packed with shrewd design trade-offs.


    Pros: Microsoft's Internet Explorer toolbar system was literally a masterpiece beginning with IE 4.0. It's been tweaked very little since. And the toolbar system is a big part of why Microsoft's browser excelled in the late 90s. To their credit, Mozilla's engineers recognized this too, because they replicated 90% of IE's toolbar functionality for Firefox.

    Firefox lets you take the air out of the top of the browser window. If you want to, you can put the Location bar next to the main menus and put the Search box next to the main toolbar, losing an entire row of stuff at the top of the browser. You can turn off the Bookmarks Toolbar (a.k.a. the Links bar in IE), or any of the other bars. You can also heavily customize the Bookmarks toolbar with common destinations, and create drop-down menus containing other common bookmarks. Even the tabs take up as little vertical real estate as possible while maintaining discoverability. The user interface aesthetic — not the look and feel — is identical to the thinking behind IE's toolbar structures. But because of the Bookmark Manager's strengths and the tabs, the overall result is much stronger than what Internet Explorer delivers.

    The toolbars are also fully customizable. You can drag-and-drop or rearrange toolbar buttons or bookmarks on any toolbar. You can create custom toolbars. You can add separators, invisible spacers, adjust the size of icons, add or remove text, and a host of other options. Like Microsoft Word (and other Microsoft Office apps), the drag-and-drop customization abilities are in vogue whenever the Customize Toolbar box is open (see screenshot). Unlike Office apps, the Alt key doesn't let you do this even without the Customize Toolbar being open.

    All in all, Firefox is the only browser that lets me work with toolbars and bookmarks at least as well as I work with the same corresponding features in IE. For me, anything else would have been a deal breaker.

    Cons: There are a few peccadilloes with Firefox's toolbars. The user-interface process for rearranging entries on live toolbars, in Customize Toolbars, in the Bookmarks Manager, and on the Bookmarks menu is not consistent. Each of these constructs has a slightly different way that it needs to be manipulated. In some places, you need to know to press Shift or Ctrl at the same time you rearrange icons. In other places, that's not necessary. And the Alt key works in some places but not others. Baaah!

    Another shortcoming is the size of the Web search bar. It's too short! I'd like to lengthen it by at least 20 pixels but there's no option for doing that exposed in the user interface. Thankfully, Nathar Leichoz created the ResizeSearchBox extension. ResizeSearchBox solves the problem with an elegant graphical resize bar (or thumb) found on the Customize Window palette. If you're running Firefox right now, you can click this install link to initiate the installation of ResizeSearchBox and check it out. This is the most professionally and slickly written extension I've seen so far for Firefox 1.0. It even has a built-in sidebar window that opens when you install the program to explain how to configure it.

    One of the few things Mozilla opted to leave out is an icon sizing/presentation option labeled "show selective text on the right." It's used to make the toolbar smaller by eliminating text descriptions for all but a few of the icons whose functions are less readily understood. Of course, Firefox provides pop-up toolbar button tips, so this is a minor thing.

    Finally, this is a very tiny behavior that, because this is my newsletter and I find it annoying, I'm going to devote some "ink" to. It has to do with the Location bar (what's called the Address bar in Internet Explorer).

    The issue concerns highlighting behavior of the URL in the Location bar. With either browser, if your intention is to select the URL to copy and paste it somewhere, such an within an email message, the experience is apparently identical. The experiene is quite different, though, when you attempt to modify a URL by drag-selecting part of it and deleting or overtyping the selection. Say, for example, the URL to the page you just opened from a bookmark is deep into a site and you want to get to the site's home page. If you don't see a "Home" option on the page, the easiest thing to do is to just delete everything after the domain name in the URL and press Enter.

    The first time you click an existing URL in Firefox's Location bar the entire URL is highlighted automatically. Actually, let me be very specific about that: The first time you click the URL — and then let go of the mouse button — the entire URL is highlighted in Firefox (and Mozilla). Internet Explorer behaves almost the same way. The first time you click the URL in its Address bar, it doesn't wait until you let go of the mouse button; it highlights the whole URL upon the initiation of the click. That very tiny difference results in a larger behavioral divergence between the two browsers than you might expect.

    In IE (Opera), when you click the URL a second time, the highlight disappears, no matter what. You're able to move the mouse as you click to "drag select" (or "swipe") any part of the URL. In Firefox (and Mozilla), the second time you click the URL, it lets you break the selection if you hold the mouse cursor motionless, but if you attempt to drag-select as part of that second click, you get the circle with the slash through indicating an illegal operation.

    That sounds a whole lot worse than it is. Firefox's design just has a different philosphy. The expectation appears to be that, if you intend to modify the URL, you will position your mouse pointer carefully and perform the drag selection with the first click.

    So what's the point? Those of us with Internet Explorer muscle memory have for years started any Location bar operation by clicking the URL in the location bar. That selects the whole URL because, presumably, the most likely reason to click the URL is to copy it for pasting into an email message. The second most likely reason to access the Location bar URL is to edit, so IE requires you to begin a partial-URL drag selection with the second click. That second click breaks the highlight whether you're moving the mouse pointer or not.

    There's really no right or wrong about this. But my personal opinion is that Mozilla should rethink the way the Firefox browser works for two reasons: 1. The way it works in Internet Explorer is also the way it works in Netscape 4.x. and Opera — and that way has better usability. 2. Perhaps more importantly, there's a huge installed base of IE users. If even 10% of them have the same reaction I do, that's a whole lot of potential Firefox users.

    Installation and Importation

    Pros: With a 4.8MB download size and an installation routine that runs like silk, there's not much to be upset about in this area. Firefox's installation gives you Typical or Custom installation options. The main reason to opt for the Custom option is to install in a directory other than the default directory. Before you know it, the installation is done (see screenshot).

    Firefox also automatically, at your option, imports from Internet Explorer a host of settings, including Internet options, website favorites, browser history, saved passwords, saved form information, and cookies. Saying that doesn't really get across what it means; what it means to anyone who was using Internet Explorer regularly prior to Firefox's installation is that you can pick up where you left off in IE using Firefox henceforth. About the only thing you'll probably have to clean up is Bookmarks and the Links bar/Bookmark Folder bar, if you used that in IE.

    People have picked on Firefox because Java and Flash, as well as possibly some other plug-ins you might be using, aren't automatically carried over to Firefox. A previously installed version of Acrobat carries over automatically (well, version 5.0 did, anyway). There may be issues in this area that I haven't discovered, but the plug-ins thing seems minor to me.

    Cons: When Firefox is installed on a Windows XP (and presumably Win2000) machine that has multiple users configured for people sharing a single a computer, Firefox's installation routine doesn't stop to ask you whether you want the program installed for all users or just the current one. It installs it for all users. That's unfortunate because if one of the other users decides to uninstall the program in their login, that program will disappear from all users. If two people are sharing a computer, and only one wants Firefox installed, that's not possible the way Firefox installs now. Other programs that are more Windows-aware handle this by asking you whether you want to install a program for one user or all the users. This is something that Mozilla needs to fix, and soon.

    I love the IE importation features, but I wish that Mozilla had allowed us to specify from what machine we want to import IE settings, favorites, and saved data. The routine can only take that information from the machine you're installing from. It would save me tons of time if I could tell the important routine to get all that information from a different machine on my network.

    Options and the Rest

    Pros: There is a lot more to Firefox that I'm afraid I'm just going to lump together. The browser's Options area, accessed from its Tools menu (sound familiar?), is well designed, and far less overwhelming than similar configuration dialogs from other applications (see screenshot). What's more, there are small little managing utilities sprinkled throughout the Options area. I mentioned the Plug-Ins tool earlier. There's also a Password Manager and a little button that checks for available updates to Firefox in the Advanced > Software Update area. The software-updating user interface should be under the Help menu, by the way, not buried in Advanced options.

    Speaking of help, the built-in documentation has pluses and minuses. The basic Firefox Help file is well designed and fairly well stocked with information. The Mozilla Firefox Support site adds many additional tidbits. There's also a Help file aimed specifically at Internet Explorer users (which reminds me a lot of Word 6.0's inclusion of Help for WordPerfect users). Be sure to check out the Firefox Keyboard Shortcuts and Firefox Mouse Shortcuts support pages.

  • Mozilla Firefox Support
  • Firefox Keyboard Shortcuts
  • Firefox Mouse Shortcuts

    The downside to Firefox's help facility is that unlike Internet Explorer and almost every app Microsoft writes these days, there's no context-sensitive help. To access this in Microsoft software, click the question-mark icon in the upper right corner and then click it on anything in a program you don't understand.

    Cons: Even though there are many fewer Options settings in Firefox than in Internet Explorer, I find that there's only one IE option that I miss. In IE, you can configure Internet Explorer so that it fully loads the every Web page on "Every visit to the page." So, in other words, you can force the browser to avoid its cache (at least, theoretically). I have not been able to locate a setting or customization for Firefox that extends that functionality. Minor, very minor — and probably only of interest to Web developers and Webmasters.

    Update: I'd like to thank Bill DeHaven for pointing out something I had missed. I even looked there too, but missed it. Firefox has several special screens you can access with "about:{special keyword}" entered into the Location bar. The one with the biggest bonanza of options is:


    This help page tells you How To Modify Hidden Preferences Using about:config. Anyway, the setting about:config that controls the notion of checking for updates on "Every visit to the page" is this one:


    In order to change the default setting, which is represented by the numeral 3, "when appropriate/automatically," simply double-click the browser.cache.check_doc_frequency entry. A little entry box will open up. Type the numeral 1 to change it to "Each Time" and press OK. Here's a description of the available options:

    0 = Once per session
    1 = Each time
    2 = Never
    3 = When appropriate/automatically

    These documents on the Mozilla Help site explain the about:config settings:

  • About:config Entries
  • Documented Preferences

    The second one is an older document that's really aimed at earlier Mozilla browsers, but it's still useful information.

    Some other about: screens that you might want to explore include:


    There are others too, and in upcoming issues I'll cover any that really matter. Some of them aren't very useful. About:config is the one I'll probably be giving the most attention to.

    The Burnished Nub
    There are a couple of additional large issues that require a few words. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 is the de facto standard for enterprise Web applications. Most content management systems, for example, require it. And that includes the one used by CMP Media and TechWeb. Firefox performs most but not all functions in that content management system. And there are many other enterprise software types that will be tripped up by the use of Firefox.

    One of things that can trip up enterprise Web apps in Firefox (and other browsers) is that Sun's Java Runtime Environment isn't installed automatically. It's pretty easy to download and install the latest version of this software from Sun Microsystem's Java site. I recommend a manual or "offline" installation, which means that you download the Java installer first and then run it locally.

    There are also many websites out there that require the use of ActiveX controls, something that Firefox doesn't support. Microsoft's Windows Update and ClearType sites are good examples. Neither will work with Firefox. So you're not going to be able to get rid of IE entirely. Hopefully those obstacles will change with time.

    But that said, Firefox 1.0 is so far the best alternative to IE of all the browsers I've ever tested. Opera and the previous generation of Mozilla are very close, but Firefox offers the best page-loading compatibility and overall ease of use.

    Another major advantage of this product is that Firefox is multi-platform and can be installed on multiple versions of Windows (it was tested on Windows XP for this review), Mac OS X, and Linux/Unix.

    Long-term reliability of operation is an open question with Firefox. In my testing I've had very little trouble with the program. I've only had one issue, and I'm not certain it was a problem with Firefox. Other people have reported issues to me, such as slow performance (compared to IE) and crashing when multiple browser instances are open. Nothing I have been able to replicate, but since the browser is so new, potential issues like this bear watching.

    There's a pipelining trick provided by Mozilla as an "experimental" feature that reportedly speeds up page-load performance. For more tips like this one, see the Mozilla Firefox Support area's Tip's and Tricks page. If you have a yen to customize Firefox, this is the place to start.

    I think it's likely that Microsoft will, at last, upgrade Internet Explorer in some serious way. But the software giant has also said it will no longer release versions of Internet Explorer separate from the operating system — which means it would have to issue another service pack release of Windows XP (I don't see this happening, other than patch roll-ups) or deliver the upgraded browser in Windows Longhorn, which isn't due out until late 2006. Microsoft is capable of updating Internet Explorer online via Windows Update, but it's unlikely to attempt larger feature improvements, such as tabbed browsing, with that method. By the time Microsoft accomplishes any meaningful update to IE, we'll be into some future version of Firefox, which is actually slated for its 1.1 release in the relatively near future.

    When you get right down to it, I'm not going back to Internet Explorer 6.0. Mozilla just put paid to seven years of Microsoft browser hegemony on my desktop. How about yours?

    Note: An earlier version of this story appeared on the InformationWeek, Desktop Pipeline, Security Pipeline, and other CMP Media LLC websites.

  • Top Product! | Firefox 1.0, Mozilla, Mozilla Firefox Support, Nov. 9 Launch Press Release, Freeware

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    Recommendations on the 2005 Norton Products
    This isn't a review of Symantec's Norton 2005 products, which include Norton AntiVirus 2005, Norton Personal Firewall 2005, Norton AntiSpam 2005, Norton SystemWorks 2005, and Norton Internet Security 2005. Of all of these products, only Norton Internet Security 2005 offers any significant addition of features. For 2005, Symantec's focus has been largely refinement and minor updates to meet new security threats. A couple of issues back, I wrote about Symantec's 2005 product lineup based on the briefing the company gave me. That story includes a discussion of the more important new features.

    In this story, I'm answering annual question: "Should I upgrade to the latest version of Norton XXX this year?"

    Symantec was late this Autumn in getting me the final evaluation copies of all its 2005 utilities. So I didn't get started testing some of them until about a month ago. (I haven't started testing Norton AntiSpam yet because I'm currently still testing POPFile.) I've been using Norton AntiVirus (NAV) 2005 for the longest of the bunch, and I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It's the best version of NAV ever. The improvements aren't dramatic; it just works better than it predecessors did.

    For money, the biggest new feature in NAV 2005 is the pre-installation scan of your hard drive. If you've used NAV before, you may recall that the pre-install scan used to take forever. Pre-scanning hard drive is an important step, especially if you didn't have an antivirus program installed on your computer before. But the time required to run this scan earlier versions of NAV meant that most people did one of two things: Either you didn't complete the scan, or you didn't install the software. Well, NAV 2005's pre-install scan takes only a few minutes, even on giant hard drives. One less hassle.

    The only recommendation I have about NAV 2005 is this: If you bought NAV 2004, wait until next year and get NAV 2006. In general, I recommend an every-other-year NAV upgrade program. On the off years, purchase a one-year antivirus subscription update. If you're running NAV 2003 or older, get NAV 2005. But please uninstall all previous versions NAV, Norton SystemWorks, and Norton Internet Security before you install Norton AntiVirus 2005. In my book, this isn't optional. When people get into trouble with Norton products, it's because they mix versions from different years — especially in conjunction with the superset products, Norton Internet Security and Norton SystemWorks.

    In January 2004 I wrote in a Q&A answer to a reader question that I was becoming disillusioned with the two larger Symantec products. And my conviction about this only strengthened throughout 2004. Although, as usual, you'll find lots of people complaining about installation issues with the Norton 2005 product line in forums and websites (that is, "in Google"), that doesn't mean everyone is having trouble — or even that most people are having problems with these products. In fact, my personal experience is that the Norton 2005 products are better than the 2004 Norton products, which were better than the 2003 Norton products. In particular, Norton SystemWorks 2005 seems improved to me. I installed it on my main machine and have seen none of the issues that plagued earlier versions of this product, which included conflicts with pre-existing Norton AntiVirus installations (I had NAV 2005 previously installed) and system performance or reliability issues. So I'm cautiously optimistic about Norton SystemWorks 2005. And since buying and installing Norton SystemWorks is the only way to get Norton Utilities (a product I've been using since the early 1980s), I'm pleased to note the improvement. However, see the advice for installing NAV 2005, for it applies here too. Also, don't install everything. Be choosy when installing the various options in Norton SystemWorks. (One-Button Check up, for example, is something I wish I hadn't installed.)

    Norton Personal Firewall (NPF) is one of two software firewalls that I've recommended over the last few years. (The other is Zone Labs' ZoneAlarm.) Unlike ZoneAlarm, Norton Personal Firewall has not undergone drastic changes over the last 18 months or so. The revisions in Norton Personal Firewall 2005 are mostly usability oriented. It pops up fewer user prompts, and those prompts are a tad easier to understand than before. The change isn't large, but it's a welcome refinement. Recommendations: Even though you don't want to face the hassle of re-training the firewall, if you buy NPF 2005, be sure to uninstall all previous versions of Norton Internet Security and Norton Personal Firewall before installing this one. That piece of advice is perhaps even more true of firewall software than other types of security products. Of all the software firewalls on the marketplace, Norton Personal Firewall 2005 is the easiest one to use, especially for inexperienced users or people who never want to fuss with their firewalls. If you're used to monkeying around with your firewall, ZoneAlarm is a better choice.

    Norton Internet Security's new "Outbreak" feature is a good idea. It notifies you with a pop-up box of rapidly spreading threats, which hopefully, could result in your getting a Live Update sooner or, if one isn't available yet, it gives Symantec a way to let you know what else you might do in advance of the update being available. It also, though, gives you a way to know that your computer *is* protected against a threat that there's a lot of buzz about. You can check that in the Norton Internet Security status window. Too bad, though, that you have to pay for Norton Internet Security (NIS) to get that functionality. That should be a part of Norton AntiVirus. I could also do without the content blocking and privacy control features. It's not that they're a bad idea, it's that — like most programs of their ilk — they don't work very well. Don't get me wrong, I'm as concerned about safeguarding my kids and preventing against identity theft ("phishing") as anyone else. It's just that the tools we have in these areas are inflexible and immature.

    There are things about Norton Internet Security 2005 that I like. And I clearly prefer it to its predecessors. But I'm just still hearing about too many issues with the Norton superset products. At this time, I just cannot recommend NIS 2005.

    The Norton Products that everyone most needs are Norton AntiVirus and Norton Personal Firewall. The 2005 versions of these products are commendable. It costs more to buy them separately than to buy them as a package in Norton Internet Security 2005. But how much would you pay to avoid a major hassle or problem on your computer? The kind you spend hours trying to fix and wind up having to call tech support over? Pay a little more now to avoid the headache.

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    60-Second Briefs
       - ZoneAlarm 5.5 Is Available
       - Eudora Email 6.2 Ships
       - Get Scot's Newsletter RSS Feed

    ZoneAlarm 5.5 Is Available
    Anti-spam and anti-phishing features lead the advances in the new 5.5 upgrade to the ZoneAlarm product line from Zone Labs. Version 5.5 upgrades all the products in the ZoneAlarm product lineup, including the standard ZoneAlarm product, which is free for personal use. Check out the Nov. 9, 2004, press release for more information about what's new in ZoneAlarm Security Suite 5.5 ($69.95), ZoneAlarm Pro 5.5 ($49.95), ZoneAlarm with Antivirus 5.5 (24.95), and ZoneAlarm 5.5 (free, download). I have not tested any version of ZoneAlarm 5.5 yet, but will be doing so in the near future.

    Eudora Email 6.2 Ships
    Most Scot's Newsletter readers use Outlook or Outlook Express as their email packages. Several of you also use Hotmail. So this may not be all that interesting to many of you. Because I use Eudora, and have covered Eudora many times in the past, just thought I would note that Qualcomm released Eudora 6.2 on November 8. I've installed this new version of the product. Despite a long list of very minor updates, the main reason to install version 6.2 is that it squashes a whole lot of bugs, including several memory leaks.

  • Eudora Email 6.2 marketing features list
  • The real list of changes in Eudora Email 6.2
  • Where to download Eudora Email 6.2

    Get Scot's Newsletter RSS Feed
    Some of you may remember that early in 2004 I dabbled with RSS and set up a basic RSS feed for Scot's Newsletter using a free service called MailToRSS (or iUpload). That company's service stopped working for Scot's Newsletter only a few months later — despite several messages back and forth with tech support. What was ideal about MailToRSS was that it required literally zero work from me. Well, I should know better by now.

    It took several months before I found time to explore and adopt a different process. After downloading and trying several freeware products, I settled on the very simple web-based app called List Garden by Dan Bricklin at Software Garden. Using that tool, I've created a Scot's Newsletter RSS feed that contains all the 2004 issues. And I'm vowing to maintain the feed as part of my newsletter production process from here on out.

    So that's the good news. There is a downside. This RSS implementation is not my final word on the subject. Please consider it to be SFNL RSS Feed 0.8. The 1.0 release will break up each newsletter edition's several articles into separate RSS topics. In the feed I'm offering now, each entire edition of the newsletter is a single topic in the feed.

    To get Scot's Newsletter feed, and to learn more about RSS, visit this page on the Scot's Newsletter website. Also, for those who might be interested, I use Nick Bradbury's FeedDemon for RSS Reading. Nick was the original author of HomeSite, the HTML Editor I've been using for almost a decade. FeedDemon will be the subject of upcoming coverage in this newsletter.

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    The Great HTML Test — Coming Next Issue
    A surprisingly small number of the literally hundreds of you who responded to the item in the last issue, titled Upcoming HTML Test for Text-Edition Subscribers, responded negatively. I was encouraged by that. But it was also very educational for me to read about the reasons why some people prefer text. Printing and archiving the issues of the newsletter were among the top reasons why people prefer to receive text. I am going ahead with a one-time HTML test, but regardless of whether I wind up adopting this new method of delivering HTML and Text newsletters, I will be making changes to the newsletter's template to improve printing of the newsletter from the website. (Note: This may take a few months. It started with this issue, and if anything, you may have a harder time this month printing. Let me know.)

    Another reason some people prefer text is because they have dial-up Internet connections or don't want to be connected to the Internet while they're reading the newsletter. I can understand that. I've made changes to my newsletter HTML template that eliminates all but two images at the very end of newsletter. While being connected to the Internet makes the experience much better (because you can follow the links), it's not required.

    Because seeing this for yourself might help, this is what the emailed version of the HTML newsletter looks like right now.

    Yet another reason often cited by many who prefer Text to HTML is the size of HTML. The supposition is that HTML is huge compared to text. Well, although it is bigger, it's not vastly bigger. The text-version of the October edition of SFNL was 38K; the HTML version was 46K. In September, text was 42K and HTML was 52K. In August, it was 37K for text and 48K for HTML. So yes, it's a bit larger, but no, it's not enough larger to matter. Even on hard drives with little free disk space. Even on dial up.

    HTML Not Required
    Perhaps most importantly, it's *not* my intention to deliver an HTML newsletter to people who prefer the Text edition. If I were to eventually adopt the method I'll be testing in the next issue, I would continue to make HTML and Text editions just as I always have. The only difference would be that the server would automate the process of deciding which version would be delivered to each of you.

    That, in fact, is the main reason for the test. I want to know whether people who have HTML disabled in their email programs will receive the Text or the HTML version. What happens to my subscribers who are capable of receiving HTML but who don't want to receive it? If that describes you, I really want your feedback *after* the test, OK?

    Some clarifying points:

    1. It will be a one-time test. I have made no permanent decision about changing the way I send HTML and Text editions of the newsletter at this time. If I eventually decide on a permanent change, you will be alerted in advance.

    2. The test will be in the *next* issue of the newsletter, at the end of December.

    3. The test *only* applies to Text Edition subscribers. There will be absolutely no affect on HTML Edition newsletter. They will be sent exactly the same way as usual.

    4. Your subscription will not be changed in any way. Please, please do not attempt to change the message format of your subscription. That will not be necessary and it will also have no effect.

    5. Your feedback is requested. That request will appear in the test issue.

    6. Why am I even considering this? Please see the last issue of the newsletter, because I think I described it pretty well there.

    Just Switch Me to HTML Now
    Something like 20% of the replies sent me about the HTML test were from subscribers asking me to just convert their subscriptions from Text to HTML. I was able to handle some of these conversions manually, but there were so many responses that I just could not do that for all of you. Last year I create an online subscription wizard for this exact purpose. If you want to convert your existing subscription from Text to HTML, follow this link and read the brief instructions:

  • Scot's Newsletter Subscription Wizard - Convert Text to HTML

    There are several other Scot's Newsletter subscription wizards. Check 'em out.

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    For Linux Explorers: Mounting DOS/Windows Partitions
    Updated: December 5, 2004

    Some Linux distros are not able to automatically mount (that is, recognize and access) Windows or DOS-based hard disk partitions. For a lot of us who multiboot Linux with some version of DOS or Windows, that's a real sticking point because we often want access to those drives from Linux. The good news is that Linux gives you a way to mount such drives manually, as this installment of For Linux Explorers explains.

    A large number of Windows partitions use the FAT32 file system (introduced late in the Windows 95 timeframe). Among other things, FAT32 provides support for both long file names and larger partition sizes. The file system FAT32 replaced was called FAT (which stands for File Allocation Table). FAT is used by DOS and all versions of Windows prior to Windows 95B. Many newer Windows 2000 and Windows XP PCs come with Microsoft's NTFS (New Technology File System) preinstalled. That means that there are potentially three different DOS/Windows file systems that come into play. For more information about Microsoft's file systems, see the company's Windows XP Resource Kit site.

    For the purposes this article, we're covering FAT/FAT32, which are collectively known as the FAT file system since the differences between them are relatively minor. And we're giving variations for NTFS where applicable.

    Important: The tips in this document require the use command-line statements. For more information about how to read and execute Linux command-line prompts and commands, please check the's Linux Cheat Sheet, and in particular, Linux Prompt Basics and Linux Command-Line Nomenclature.

    Manually Mounting a FAT Partition
    A Linux partition typically uses the Ext2 or Ext3 file system. To manually mount a FAT partition from an Ext partition, you add an extra argument to the Mount command. Start by logging in as root. If you're not sure how to do that, read Logging in and out as Root on

    Next, make a new directory in /mnt by typing this command:

    # mkdir /mnt/windows

    Then you can mount the Windows partition (for this example Windows is on the hda1 drive). To do that, type:

    # mount -t vfat /dev/hda1 /mnt/windows

    Alternatively for NTFS partitions type:

    # mount -t ntfs /dev/hda1 /mnt/windows

    To double-check which file system your PC is using, as well as which partition Windows lives on type:

    # fdisk -l /dev/hda

    Unmounting a FAT Partition
    If you manually mount a partition, it is always matter to umount it manually when you finish working on it. (If the partition is automatically mounted, you don't need to unmount it because "automount" will take care of that.) To unmount a FAT partition, type the following:

    # umount /mnt/windows

    (No, this isn't a typo. The command really is "umount" — unmount.)

    Navigating Windows Partitions
    Let's say you're browsing the Scot's Newsletter Forums using the brand new Firefox 1.0 browser for Linux. You decide you'd like to have some nice music playing in the background, but all your favorite music is stored in some Windows folder such as C:\My Music.

    No problem, just start XMMS, the Linux equivalent of Nullsoft's Winamp media player. Click on the top left corner and select Play Directory. A window will open in which you can browse to /mnt/windows/My Music (or whatever folder contains your music files). IMPORTANT: When you're typing multiple-word file or directory names on the command line, such as "My Music", Linux will read the character space between My and Music as the end of the command. (Linux does not fully support character spaces in names.) To avoid this, you'll need to use what's commonly known as the "escape sign" (or Backslash). So to avoid the space problem, type:

    My\ Music

    Once over that hurdle, click OK and the music will start. You can listen to The Clash's "London Calling" at the same time that you read "The Tips" from Amsterdam!

    Apply the same trick to access that nice background picture stored in FAT partition's My Pictures folder as your Linux desktop background. Or open a .DOC or .XLS file stored in My Documents using OpenOffice. You can also work on files, copy them to your Linux /home directory, drag and drop — basically any Windows trick in the book.

    Linux gives you full access to your C, D, E, F, and so on Windows partitions, if they are FAT32 you can read and write them. With some Linux installations, NTFS-formatted partitions will be read only. That is, you can't make changes to the files on the NTFS drive from Linux. However, most modern 2.6-version Linux kernels released in the last six months do allow you to write to NTFS volumes. So if you're having trouble, check into an upgrade for your distro. (Tip: Remember that as you click on /mnt the system may need some time to automount your partitions.)

    A pity this is all a one-way street; you can't even see Linux partitions from Windows, never mind mount them. Perhaps someone just prefers to pretend that Linux partitions don't exist. ;->

    Most of the material you find in Tips for Linux Explorers comes from Bruno of Amsterdam, one of the moderators of the popular All Things Linux forum at Scot's Newsletter Forums.

    Bruno is helped by All Things Linux co-moderators Peachy and Teacher, as well as other forum members who have posted in the highly useful Tips for Linux Explorers thread (from which and the Linux Explorers section of Scot's Newsletter are adapted). Previous installments of Tips for Linux Explorers can be found at

    For Linux Explorers is edited by Cyndy, and copyedited by Scot.

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    Link of the Month: Personal Tech Pipeline
    Those of you who came my way via Windows Magazine will appreciate this. Mike Elgan, the former Editor of Windows Magazine and also the author of Mike's List (a Link of the Week site), teamed up with yours truly to deliver TechWeb's new Personal Tech Pipeline website. Personal Tech Pipeline covers gadgets, MP3 players, smart phones, digital cams, media servers, plasma TVs, and everything cool in the world of consumer electronics and personal technology. The timing is perfect with the holidays coming. Check it out!

    Have you discovered a relatively unknown Windows or broadband related website that's a little amazing? Please send me the URL so I can check it out and let everyone know about it.

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    Newsletter Schedule
    Scot's Newsletter is a monthly "e-magazine." My aim is to deliver each issue of the newsletter on or before the first of each month.

    The next issue of the newsletter should come out sometime before the end of the year. Usually I take an issue off for the holidays. But because I missed the November issue, I'll do one more this year.

    You can always find out when the next issue of Scot's Newsletter is expected to appear by visiting the Scot's Newsletter home page.

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    The Fine Print
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