For those that haven’t heard, there will be a new version of Internet Explorer (IE) released sometime over the summer (probably Christmas going on previous experience with Microsoft’s release dates). IE 7 is a reaction to the growing popularity of the Mozilla Foundation’s Firefox browser. I say this because originally MS weren’t going to release IE as a separate piece of software again, ever. You’d have to buy a new operating system to get the new version. With the growing press support for Firefox and falling (though it’s far from worryingly low) market share, MS have been forced into responding. The good news is it looks like they’re committed to tackling at least two of IE’s failings: security and standards support. We will have to wait and see how many more they’ll create with the new version (I am cynical, aren’t I?).
Me, I use Firefox. Will I be switching back to IE? I think it’s unlikely. Microsoft can bring in tabbed browsing, better security, standards compliance and a whole raft of IE-only technologies (which they’re bound to do), but that wouldn’t tempt me. Admittedly I probably wouldn’t believe some of their claims anyway (I bet they’ll say it’s faster). The reason is that one of Firefox’s most powerful features is the ability for anyone to create extensions; add-ons which provide extra functionality.
As a website builder, I have the developer extension installed, which lets me test my code, show and hide page elements and run pages through a validator, amongst other things. One of my extensions allows me to check a word in the dictionary at dictionary.com by highlighting it and selecting the option from the right-click menu. Another lets me re-open tabs I’ve accidentally closed (which is meaningless if you don’t use a tabbed browser, but think of it as being able to re-open a window you just closed, usually by mistake). I have a BugMeNot extension that saves me signing up to sites I might only want to visit once. One that blocks ads on websites. As you can see, the options are long and varied. There are also extensions to the in-built search function too, a function I’ve only recently starting using to its full potential.
You see, in Firefox, there is a little search box on the menubar, where you can type in words to search Google. I realised there was the option to add other search engines, so I added Google UK, to get more local results. Recently it occurred to me that there might be other extensions that would allow me to search a wider range of sites, so I took a look, and there were. Now I have the ability to search the BBCi site, Amazon’s US and UK sites, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) and Wikipedia straight from that same box on my menubar. There are probably far more options I’d find useful as well (update: I added Play.com too).
So, say I wanted to find some information on a movie, I used to either: go to Google, type in the movie and follow a link (usually to the IMDB page, you know what you’re getting there) or I’d visit IMDB and type it in there, check the results and click the right one. Now all I have to do is select the site from the list, type in the search term and the results pops up in a new tab (did I mention how good tabbed browsing is?). Say I don’t find anything. Well, hit the dropdown and select a new search site, hit return, away we go again. It’s faster (a little) and easier. I can do the same for books and DVDs, for any encyclopaedia entries or news items.
So why do I find this so useful? It saves me some typing, and perhaps a little time, but not much else, right? Well, I like Google, but, as others have pointed out, it’s not always the best at returning the right results. It suffers from indexing too much information, being too generic (it’s not just Google but all the major search sites). I think even they have realised this, which is why you’re starting to see services like Google Local and Froogle to go with the image and news searches they already have. So it’s better, if you know what you’re looking for, to go to a specialist site rather than trawling through page after page of Google results. Say I wanted to know something about the Napoleonic Wars. I know and trust Wikipedia, so instead of hunting through all sorts of unrelated results in the main Google index and finding sites that may have questionable facts, I can narrow my search straight to one site and see what they have. I think I’ve said this before, but we (as a global community) are now starting to index so much information we’re liable to drown in it, and so the next move search companies will make is not try and be the biggest, but to specialise in and effort to try and return the best results.
New extensions are being added to Firefox all the time because a) Firefox is built to be extended and b) Firefox is a community product based on open ideals, which anyone can contribute to. Microsoft cannot (and will not) compete with that, not until they learn to let go of control a little more. They need to start reaching out to their user base instead of hiding everything behind patents and lawyers.
So, for those of you who haven’t yet taken the plunge and started using Firefox, dive in, the water’s fine. It’s easy to install, easy to use and comes with tons of benefits, not least of which is a vast user community that you can be part of.