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Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Mozilla Firefox 1.0

A decade ago, geeks greeted the release of Netscape's new web browser with great anticipation. A similar sense of expectation surrounded each subsequent version of Netscape Navigator and, to a much lesser extent, updates to Microsoft's upstart Internet Explorer.

All that excitement came to an end three or four years ago, when Microsoft seemed to have won the so-called browser wars and promptly stopped adding new features to IE. But it was déjà vu all over again Tuesday, complete with swamped servers and abused refresh keys, with the release of Firefox 1.0.

The Mozilla Foundation, inheritor of the Netscape programming code base, made the very first non-beta version of its open-source browser available for free at 1 a.m. PT Tuesday. Soon after its release, Mozilla's servers were overwhelmed.

Firefox 1.0, available for the Windows, Linux and Mac operating systems in more than a dozen languages, is the result of two years of work. The browser is an absolute joy to use -- smart, fast and very user-friendly, while still offering a slew of advanced programmable and customizable functions for those who want to tinker.

In a press release, the Mozilla Foundation states that Firefox 1.0 is more compatible with websites written specifically for Internet Explorer than the beta versions that preceded it, and has new updating capabilities which will grab and install new browser versions, extensions or security fixes automatically.

There's also a new find function that appears in a toolbar across the bottom of the page, better bookmarking, more flexible pop-up blocking, live bookmarks that display Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, news feeds from the bookmark itself or in a sidebar, and good online fraud-protection features.

I'd downloaded the preview release of Firefox 1.0 (Firefox 1.0PR) about three weeks ago, along with about 8 million other people, according to the Mozilla Foundation's download stats. I didn't see -- and didn't expect to see -- much that was visibly new in the final 1.0 version as compared to the preview, but those who are still using 0.9 or earlier versions will find a good collection of great new features.

The final version feels a bit snappier than the preview release did. Web pages seem to be coming up a few seconds faster, but that's a subjective opinion -- I didn't time the page loads. There is a short list of bug fixes that have been incorporated into the final release of version 1.0.

I installed Firefox 1.0 on three machines -- one PC running Windows XP which has been running Firefox as a primary browser for more than a year, another PC running Windows XP Service Pack 2 (XP2), whose user runs Internet Explorer exclusively, and a Mac running OS X version 10.2 with Apple Computer's Safari browser.

Installation on all three machines was almost flawless. On the XP PC, I didn't even uninstall the previous version of Firefox, as you are supposed to. The program still installed perfectly, moved my bookmarks and settings over to the new version quickly and booted and ran without problems. I've had big issues with running previous versions of Firefox (the 0.9 series) without uninstalling the older version first.

Installing Firefox on the XP2 and Mac machines was just as easy, although not completely without problems, on the Mac. After the installation routine finished, a dialog box opened and offered to move settings and bookmarks (favorites, as Explorer refers to them) from IE/Safari to Firefox. After selecting yes, all settings were quickly applied and all bookmarks were moved from the PC without a snag. Safari didn't seem to want to give up the bookmarks, so I used a third-party utility.

The only problem with the XP2 machine was that many of my extensions -- plug-in programs that add extra features to Firefox -- weren't compatible with version 1.0. They'd all worked with the preview version, so I'd expected them to work with the final release.

Firefox does have a nifty auto-update feature for extensions. Most of my extensions have now been updated, although a couple remain unusable until their programmers update them for 1.0.

Firefox has long boasted the best and easiest-to-use privacy settings of any browser, allowing users full control of the contents of their history, saved form, saved passwords, cookies and cache files. The browser's integrated pop-up ad blocker can be configured to allow specific sites to spawn new windows (some websites, like many car rental sites, rely on pop-ups), and the browser can also be customized to allow specified sites to install software.

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