Microsoft has won the browser wars, but a battle is raging for the runner-up spot and one of the contenders has recently been refreshed.
The Mozilla Foundation has renamed and updated its Firebird browser. Now called Firefox, the browser's current release is version 1.0, release candidate 2. Improvements include a download manager, the capability to view previously visited web pages offline, and support for a growing number of browser add-ons called Extensions.
Firefox can be downloaded for free from Mozilla.org. It is 4.7MB and is compatible with the Windows, Linux, and Mac operating systems.
The revamped browser is slick, fast, lean and versatile. It is the first browser release from the open source organisation that is aimed at "non-techies," according to Mitchell Baker, president of the Mozilla Foundation.
"We think people deserve a better browser," Baker says. She says Firefox gives web surfers a choice of a free Windows browser that won't tax their patience or their PC's system resources.
Firefox differentiates itself from Internet Explorer and other alternative browsers like Opera and Netscape by what it doesn't offer: it is a stripped-down program with a clean and simple interface.
Rather than confronting you with a maze of services, features, and commercial tie-ins, Firefox installs with just the essentials: a built-in pop-up blocker, a slick file-download manager and a customisable search box in the browser toolbar.
Also included are easy-to-understand privacy controls, a tabbed browsing feature so you can keep multiple web pages open and the capability to block many HTML-based banner ads.
Another feature, Find as You Type, is unique to Firefox. It helps you find keywords on web pages just by starting to type them. Words in web pages that match your text string are highlighted as you type.
If you still hanker for a browser that does more, Firefox's Extensions can extend the browser's capabilities.
Extentions are small software applications that you download. Those that I've tried include a full-featured calendar, an Adblock Extension that blocks banner ads and Macromedia Flash-based ads, and a Privacy Extension that wipes your internet tracks clean with one click.
Extensions are vast and varied. The selection includes an RSS reader add-on, a browser-based spell-checker, and a utility that lets you create mouse gestures so you can perform browser functions with small, quick mouse movements.
Mozilla.org's Extensions website was inaccessible for two days during this evaluation. Representatives say that's because the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation relies on a community of programmers, and doesn't host the Extensions itself. The developer's site that hosts the Extensions was bogged down with download traffic, so I could access the Firefox Extensions library once over two days. Later, though, it was working properly.
I also found some advanced features, like finding and managing Extensions, not intuitive enough. The Extension Adblock was very powerful on my home PC. Unfortunately, the same Extension failed miserably at blocking ads on my work computer for some mysterious reason.
I was also disappointed that a minority of websites I visited didn't display correctly because the sites were designed specifically for IE. To be fair, that's not Firefox's problem – but it's the reality all alternative browsers must contend with.
Still, Firefox is a nimble contender to the lumbering IE, and many of these problems will be ironed out soon. Look to Firefox to take chances on innovative tools that Microsoft won't risk developing. If you're not the adventurous type, you'll prefer to keep safe and stable with IE.