Monday, June 4, 2007

Why I use Firefox

Rarely (if ever as much before) does a program come out that I will outright preach about, but Mozilla's Firefox browser is one such program. Now, you may have heard from a number of sources that Firefox is more secure than Internet Explorer 6, even with the Sp2 update. (And if you've seen Windows Vista, you probably know that Internet Explorer 7 took quite a few elements from Firefox.) Firefox is a better browser, but not necessarily because of security. Maybe for newbies, but I was not worried about security when I used Internet Explorer 6. If you know what you're doing, it's not a problem. But IE limited me in so many ways.

Easily the single most annoying part of the Internet experience is ads. I used to brag about banner ads because, unlike television ads, you could ignore them. Then people got greedy, and the ads became bigger, more annoying, and there was really no way to "just say no" or "opt out". I've always felt that since I (or my dad - but not them) paid for my computer, I was paying for my Internet access, that these con artists had no business making money off what I was paying for, and not giving me any of it.

The single most important reason I will not go back to Internet Explorer is a Firefox extension called AdBlock. IE 7 supports extensions, but only ones you can buy, and they're not very cool. They just add some professional options. Typical Microsoft. Firefox is made by people closer in frame of mind to myself and websurfing friends of mine; therefore it's going to be better. If they don't add a cool feature, anyone can code it and integrate it as an extension. I believe AdBlock is a Mozilla project, but I'm not too sure. Either way it does what it says it will: to filter objects at their source.

That, alone, does nothing for you. You see an ad, you block it. It's an opt-out process, but you have to do it manually. No ad is blocked until you tell it to, and other ads can get around with different names and locations. Sounds pretty worthless, doesn't it? Well, I'll tell you how to make it work, but don't forget AdBlock doesn't only block ads. It'll block just about anything you tell it to. A site or forum you go to have an annoying logo, or a forum member you know have an annoying avatar or signature - AdBlock it. You never see it again.

To really pimp AdBlock, you need a filter. The most respected filter I am aware of is called Filterset.G, and there is an extension which updates Filterset.G and integrates it into AdBlock for you. Get Firefox, get AdBlock, get the Adblock Filterset.G updater, set it up right, and you should see no ads or next to no ads.

There is an ethical consideration. Some sites need their advertising revenue to stay online, and if they don't get it, the site will disappear, so if the site is important to you, you have a problem (or you both do). So in a sense you're cheating the site owner, reading a site that has an implied price of looking at the ad. But it depends on why the site owner is running the site. I have an ad on the side. Just the Google text-based one. Adblock blocks it as well, but I don't mind. If someone doesn't want to see ads, I'm not one to push the issue. I haven't gotten paid yet (you have to earn so much first) but even if I had, I'm a believer in personal choices. But if you have high speed Internet (and I don't recommend this on dialup), you can have AdBlock hide the ads, not just block them. So the ads load and the site owner gets paid - that's rather immoral, too, though - and you don't see ads. But from where I sit, the ad agencies owe me some. I remember a certain red and white one that would flash, it could have hurt my eyesight if I'd looked at it long enough. They never compensated me for that. Advertising is a necessary evil on the Net, but as long as they play dirty, AdBlock stays. Ideally a more mature system would be in place where responsible websurfers opt in to ads that would appeal to them, the ads would be less intrusive, and people would click on them more, maybe buy something - sort of a win-win situation. But that day isn't today.

Video extraction
It's a damn shame it's not easier to save videos from sites like YouTube locally - just another example of idiots in big cities assuming every single person visiting their site has broadband. It is simply not available in certain parts of the US. So much for bloody advancement. So if you want a video and you want to watch it without skips, and over and over, you need to download the file locally and save it. To do this you need DownloadHelper. This puts a strange icon on your toolbar, which will animate when it can do something for you. Most of the time it's worthless (it picks up images, too) but on a site like YouTube, it'll list the video. You need something that can play FLV video. VideoLAN can, and the amazing K-Lite Mega Codec Pack can enable all your media players to play DVDs and just about any media format. If you need that video in MPEG or AVI format, go get the free Riva FLV Encoder. Sure, when you open the FLV file, it will want to output to FLV, but just change the extension (the three digits after the .) from flv to mpg or avi and it will do that. Change the other settings as you like and hit Encode, or Start, or whatever. Any site that has videos like YouTube, should work with DownloadHelper. Click the down-arrow next to the animated icon, click the name of the file (might be confusing) and it should give you a save-as. Choose Desktop or wherever you'd like it to go, and start - if the file is 5MB+ it's most likely the video. If you change the name (e.g. to the title of the video as given on the site) you need to add ".flv" without the quotes to the name. I recommend the following naming scheme: "[name of video] [minutes]'[seconds].flv"; for example, "Skateboarding tricks 9'34.flv". This way I see what it is and how long it is, at a glance. If you can choose on the site, choose the best-quality video. While downloading, close the tab/window the video is on as it will download there as well - you can speed up the local download if you close the page or browse away from it (to say,, which is going to load a search engine and then stop).

The other entries won't be this long.

Title bar tweaking
I wouldn't have left IE for this, but I always hated having IE say "Microsoft Internet Explorer Provided By [Whomever]" added to the title bar. It just seemed trashy and cluttered. With this extension, I've removed all text from the title bar (except the page title).

Email Integration
It's nice to be able to multitask web activities, and having your browser track your email, even in multiple accounts on the same site, beats manually checking your email every time. I chose Gmail because I was tired of MSN/Hotmail and Yahoo. Google has always been real cool, and it shows with Gmail. I would say I have invites for you, but I read on there you can sign up on the main page now, so best do that if you want to try it. I actually have three Gmail addresses I use, and manage with the Gmail Manager.

Download management
Download managers aren't a necessity on the Net, for me anyway, but Firefox's best download management extension, DownThemAll, adds a few nice options. You can pause and resume most downloads. If you go to a site with, say, a lot of links to images, you can fire it up and have it select all images, and download them in a queue. It's served me well for both single downloads and mass downloads, but it doesn't work at all (that I know of) with DownloadHelper for downloading videos. Maybe in a future release.

Message board/site integration
Firefox's expandable nature has allowed site owners or fans of certain sites to make extensions which add to the browsing experience of their site. The Gmail Manager above is one example. If you use MySpace a lot, you'll find the MySpace Toolbar of some help. It will record your login information, and allow you to login via the toolbar, bypassing the clumsy process used on the site. In addition it provides a few quick links that will save you some scrolling and clicking. If you use any kind of forum, message board, or blog - anything where you will need HTML code or BBCode - you want BBCodeXtra. Highlight some text you've typed, right click it, and go into its submenu and choose bold, or italics, or color. If you've copied a Web address or image location to the Clipboard, BBCodeXtra has a clipboard menu, such as URL from Clipboard or Image from Clipboard. There are just a lot of options, and if you use message boards, you'll find this one invaluable. I believe Internet Explorer was in version 4 when forums got real big in the early years of this decade. Three versions later, they still don't have a solution for working more closely with forums, showing just how minimal of an experience IE offers (and Firefox as well, when you first install it). The difference is that Firefox allows each user to customize their browsing experience.

These are just some of the extensions, and not all (but maybe the most important ones) that I use. Maybe some of these are not for you. Please, follow the links for the ones that are, hook yourself up - and from that page, browse or search and find others that suit you. From the main extensions page, you can browse by category or look at the most popular or recent extensions added.

There's one little consideration, however. It's not much of one, but I feel the need to address it just the same. By default Firefox checks for updates to these extensions, every single time it starts. So each extension adds a couple nanoseconds to your startup time - it's hardly noticeable on dialup even. But every now and then, it'll pop up a screen telling you that it's found an update for one (or more) of them. You can bypass it, but it's best to just continue. Most extensions get better (even if only minor fixes) with each release. Many open-source projects update more often than commercial software - it's the difference between updating with every or every other important fix, and following a rigid "update schedule" and updating with all fixes since, regardless of the severity and number of them. Oh, Microsoft might release a fix on the site, but Internet Explorer won't tell you about it. And you certainly won't be able to cleanly install your browser with all the latest fixes doing it Microsoft's way. Their way: install the problematic one, and then install the fixes, in order, one at a time.

And this is one thing I will really call Microsoft out on. Back in the day (1993-1996 thereabouts) Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator both cost money - about $50 if I remember correctly. They both had good features, but Netscape was a little better, although it had some unique problems of its own. (Note that the core of Netscape was released as open source and evolved into Firefox. So in a way, Firefox is the new Netscape, but not really.) Microsoft was losing. Windows 95 didn't come with a browser, and people were choosing Netscape. So Microsoft bundled IE with the third edition of Windows 95 (the one that said "Microsoft Internet Explorer" under "Microsoft Windows 95" on the boot screen) and made it free to download, although it still cost whatever to get it on CD-ROM with the booklet. Netscape did the same, but Microsoft crushed them. Microsoft hasn't directly made money on IE since. It's been included with every home version of Windows since.

What Microsoft really needs to do is work out a deal with Mozilla where a customized version of Firefox, bundled with some Microsoft extensions, would be included with Windows, and Windows users would be protected right out of the box, and have the web experience Firefox users enjoy. Barring that, they need to release the source code of IE, make it open-source, and try to develop a community like Firefox has, to where IE users have the same kind of options. Because the biggest money made around web browsers is advertising, and it's only a thin rumor that Microsoft is getting kick-backs on that for never including an ad blocker. Firefox has proved that it would be simple and easy, so what are they waiting for? Maybe they do have a financial incentive to not give IE users the choice (even if it was an opt-in thing, disabled by default) to not see ads. And as to the rest of the extensions, they just make everything that much more convenient.

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