Vivaldi: a pretty cool browser

The Thinker by Rodin

So I’ve been putting the Vivaldi browser through its paces for the last few days. Until Thursday I had never heard of Vivaldi, but my friend Roger mentioned it at a meeting so I figured it was worth checking out.

It was especially worth checking out because for whatever reason I have browser issues on my Mac. I bought my second Mac a few years ago and pimped it up with the most memory I could get. (Unfortunately I could not get a flash drive for it at the time.) I found Firefox to be too unstable, Safari to be too annoying and so I relied on Chrome instead for my daily web browsing.

Then Chrome seemed to bog down too. It was fine for a few days then slowly degraded. It seems to have the biggest problem with sites that are highly dynamic, i.e. doing lots of things in the background by frequently updating the page’s content. In short, it had issues with Facebook and Tweetdeck, both of which do a lot of this.

It got so unstable and frustrating that I moved Facebook and Tweetdeck access to Firefox, where for mysterious reasons it seemed to perform better. In any event I keep lots of applications open on my computer and I reasonably expect that they should all behave well and work quickly. But MacOS is hardly perfect. It may not crash as often as Windows, but it does crash from time to time, and certain applications close slowly if they close at all.

Like most people I spend most of my time online in my browser, so it has to work right and be nimble. Firefox recently finally got the feature that moved me to Chrome: each Firefox tab is now multi-threaded, at least since Firefox 54. Multi-threading should add overall stability by keeping each tab in an independent environment, but threading also adds additional overhead. I think that’s what’s happening with Chrome. All those threads, probably inefficiently managed, just add complexity and thus cause eventual instability.

So Vivaldi was worth a try. Vivaldi is being developed by some of the original Opera browser developers. Somewhere along the way Opera steered away from its original focus: making a browser that is truly focused on being usable and simple. So these developers started working on Vivaldi. One likely difference: they built Vivaldi on Chromium. Chromium is basically an open source web-kit, made available by Google. Google builds the rest of Chrome on top of this framework.

Judging from the swift response from Vivaldi, it’s these extra features added on top of Chromium that is bogging down Chrome. It’s kind of understandable. Chrome is an entryway to various Google services so it is optimized to present those services like GMail and Google Drive. The Chromium framework though appears to be pretty solid and sleek, which left the Vivaldi team with a good platform that allows it to take advantage of a lot of Chrome’s features. For example, pretty much any Chrome extension will work on Vivaldi, so you can install those crucial add-ons like Adblock and Adblock Plus on Vivaldi too.

Vivaldi though builds in a lot of features that are only available as extensions in Chrome. One I use a lot is making screenshots. It’s quite simple to make a screenshot in Vivaldi by clicking on a small camera icon on the status bar. By default it makes a screenshot of the entire page, but it’s easy to capture just portions of a page if you want. Or you can do it with keyboard commands. There are a lot of keyboard commands built into Vivaldi and I’ve only discovered a few of them.

One of Vivaldi’s most useful features is tab stacking. It’s one of these innovations that you wonder why no one though of it before. It allows a tab to contain a bunch of related pages under it. And the browser’s tab tiling feature allows you to display two or more of the web pages in the tab stack at once on the screen, or various unrelated tabs. Seeing multiple web pages at once on the same monitor is really neat. It’s another feature that you wonder why no one has thought about it before.

There is a lot of customization possible in Vivaldi: where you want to put the bookmarks bar, for example. It can be attached to any side. A side panel that takes you into features like bookmarks, downloads, notes and settings is easily turned on or off, and there is a visual clue at the left side of the status bar. Themes are easily customized and you can do things like set the degree of roundedness you want on a browser tab.

Other things I’ve discovered so far that I like:

  • I can use the backspace key again to go back a page
  • There is a rewind-to-start button to take you back to the first page opened in a browser tab. There is also one to take you to the last page opened in the browser tab.
  • The URL field shows you how much of the page is being loaded by visually putting a progress bar behind the URL. You can also see a count of the objects that were loaded at the same time.
  • You can easily add notes about a page by typing them manually in the side panel or making a snapshot of the part of the page that’s of interest and attaching it to the note. If doing research this is a great feature.
  • Web panels allow you to put a web page into the side panel. It’s a very scrunched version but it’s useful and again helps you look at multiple pages at once.
  • It has a wonderful history feature that let you easily see your browsing history across days, weeks, etc. as well get graphical reports.

The only features I haven’t found so far that I miss:

  • Automatic language detection and translation. This was a compelling reason to use Chrome, as it integrates with Google’s tremendously useful language translation service.
  • You have to go to Google’s Extensions page to install extensions. There is no shortcut but you can easily bookmark that page.

In short I find Chromium very impressive. I’m using it as my principle browser and seeing how it goes. So far the lights are virtually all green and the speed and usability is very impressive. I’m hoping its stability will be better than Chrome’s and it won’t bog down like Chrome.

The virtues of an email client with GMail

The Thinker by Rodin

There is plenty of upheaval in my office. We are completing a painful (and I do mean painful) transition moving from one email system to another. In this case, we are moving from Lotus Notes to Google Mail. Lotus Notes meant lots of expensive email servers inside our firewall closely watched over by a crew of technicians who, like grease monkeys, spent their days (and nights) constantly oiling Lotus’s gears. GMail of course is “in the cloud”. A Google enterprise team manages it for us. It’s all sort of magic and at least so far seems to mostly work.

Switching email systems in a large enterprise of 70,000 people is quite a trick. It is roughly like switching out your car’s engine while driving down the street. It can be done. Essentially you have to have two email engines running at the same time processing the same incoming email. Eventually all the email accounts are successfully migrated from one email system to the other and you pull the plug on the old email system. But of course there are thousands of gotchas. You also have to migrate calendars, contacts and to dos. All sorts of applications and systems are tied into the email system. Each of these individually has to be taught to use the new email system. Sometimes it is easy, sometimes it is hard.

Now that our office is all GMail all the time the office has ditched the dependable email client in favor of using GMail inside the Chrome browser. I like GMail at home and on the road and use it all the time. However, the experience of using GMail on the web casually versus using it all the time is quite a bit different. When sixty percent of your day is spent reading and replying to email, productivity is important. While GMail has lots of nifty features (like its swift search engine to find emails) it also has some significant drawbacks. Specifically you have all the limitations and annoyances of working in a browser. GMail does its best to minimize these drawbacks, but when you are reading and replying to hundreds of emails a day and using a browser for an email client the experience becomes very irritating.

Take, for example, simply navigating between emails. Typically you want to just go to the next or last email. When using a browser and a desktop computer, you must use a mouse. This means you have to reach for the mouse, point to the email you want to read and then click on it. It takes three actions to do something that previously required simply pressing your up and down arrow keys. You don’t notice this at home, but at work I find it is more than irritating. It makes reading and replying to email an annoying hassle.

We don’t have a lot of options. Our service desk supports Microsoft Outlook as an option if you whine about wanting an email client, but as Outlook users know it really prefers that you are using Microsoft Exchange on the backend. Plus it’s a Microsoft product, which means it will have the usual mixture of brilliant, quirky and downright annoying features. Most importantly, it has feature bloat. Ninety percent of the time you need to either delete or quickly file an email. The other ten percent of the time you just need to reply or forward it. You probably don’t need to turn your email client into a newsreader, or to have it transparently integrate multiple email accounts or create multiple personalities. You just want to get through the couple of hundred emails in your email box as efficiently and as quickly as possible, with minimal fuss and keystrokes.

In short, you need Mozilla Thunderbird. The open source email client is not dead, and thankfully Mozilla Thunderbird keeps refining its product, in spite of the fact that its big brother browser (Firefox) gets almost all of the attention. Arguably if you really feel you need an email client with GMail, you should ditch all of the other ones and just standardize on Thunderbird. This is because it works across all the operating systems pretty much identically and it is elegantly simple. And should you feel the need to dress it up with themes or add-ons, it’s easy enough to do. Outlook users can even install a theme that sort of makes it look like Outlook.

It’s possible to use Thunderbird with GMail but it is not intuitive. After installing it, you need to go into your web-based GMail and select “Generate Application Password” (click on the More link near the top). It will create a long string of impossible to guess characters, numbers and symbols and you have to use to authenticate Thunderbird with GMail’s mail servers. Then in Thunderbird you have to find its account settings (Tools > Account Settings) and know the names of Google’s email servers (smtp.google.com for outgoing email and imap.google.com for incoming email). When asked for a password, use the applications password. You may need to tell it to use port 993 and SSL/TSL for connection security. You probably want IMAP instead of POP (Post Office Protocol) because IMAP allows you to keep your email in the cloud, instead of moving it to your computer. This is generally preferred since you never can lose it this way. It’s worth the hassle to make Thunderbird and GMail talk to each other because you sure will get sick of using GMail through a browser if you have to do most of your business day.

Certainly there are some features of the web-based GMail that are occasionally desirable. You can assign multiple tags to more than one email rather than just throw it into a folder. You can do sophisticated searching using a host of qualifiers. The nice thing is that the one percent of the time you might need these features, you can just bring up GMail and peck away. Most of the time you will prefer the speed and efficiency of Mozilla Thunderbird.

Curiously, Thunderbird excels as a purely email client. Maintaining a calendar is very much a part time activity, and GMail’s calendar is slick, easy to use and attractive. You can install an add-on to Thunderbird that will integrate a calendar, but it is relatively ugly. Google Calendar allows you to easily see other’s calendars, once they give you access to their calendar, and you can even see calendars outside of your office network. So if I need my calendar, I go into my browser.

GMail comes with Google Talk for instant messaging. Instant messaging is almost as important as email in the enterprise. With the right program placed in your task bar, you can be notified of instant messages even if you are not focused in your browser. Or you may prefer to install an instant messenger that works with Google Talk. If so make sure you keep that application password because you will need it. Warning: if you generate a new application password, you will need to replace the passwords in other applications you may have connected to Google’s infrastructure. Currently I am using Pidgin, which works well. However you really need to select the XMPP protocol instead of Google Talk protocol. Connect to talk.google.com and use port 5222. Also make sure encryption is enabled.

Perhaps one of these days Google will get GMail browser to work more simply and speedily. Right now they seemed more enamored with adding features you are unlikely to use, like conversation view, than in making it more keyboard friendly. In addition, all the logic is executed through Javascript, which is relatively slow. You notice the time it takes to read an email once you select it. This is less noticeable in an email client. Once you see how comfortable it is to use Thunderbird with GMail, you will likely see no reason to use browser-based GMail at all if you have the option.

Firefox: must it be adios instead of adieu?

The Thinker by Rodin

This blog post by a Firefox developer is making the rounds in the techno-blogosphere. Firefox developer Jono Xia makes the point that constant updates to the open-source Firefox web browser is driving its devotees nuts. It has made me switch from Mozilla Firefox to Google Chrome for most of my browsing. In Xia’s opinion, the problem is that Firefox developers have become enamored with features, and keep adding bells and whistles to the browser. Most actual users (like me) mostly want high usability and for new features to be introduced gradually. In particular, we don’t like radical changes to our user interface.

This should not be hard to figure out. Imagine if once a month you went to drive your car and the ignition key moved to a different location or that the turn signal had moved from left of the steering wheel to right of it. That’s how it’s been with Firefox for a while. But now these changes occur stealthily. It used to be you were told when a new version was available, and then had the option of downloading it. With the latest versions of Firefox, new versions download quietly in the background and appear the next time you restart the browser. This has its strengths. If there has to be bug fixes and critical patches I’d largely prefer to be kept ignorant of them. What I don’t want is to start my browser and find new tools on my toolbar, or that suddenly some of my favorite add-ons no longer work because they were not upgraded to the latest stealthily upgraded version.

Yet if you use Firefox religiously, this sort of stuff feels like it happens all the time. To say the least, it is jarring. Many if not most of us spend much of our lives staring at content in our web browser. A consistent user interface is good. This means browsing requires less thought and becomes automatic. Add irregular but relatively frequent amounts of change to the user interface and it becomes annoying and at some nebulous point intolerable. It used to be that a year or at least many months would go by between a major version of Firefox. Now it can be weeks!

I use Firefox on a Mac. I noticed over a period of months that Firefox kept slowing down. It loaded slowly. Pages reloaded slowly. If I had a half dozen tabs open when starting up it would take a minute or more for the data in the tabs to be refreshed. Moving from tab to tab was often slow and full of latency, where the current tab just hung there for a while with an hourglass cursor. Sometimes the browser just hung and I had to do a Force Quit to kill it, or would not shutdown when I shut the computer down.

These sorts of problems don’t happen naturally. They are a result of poor software engineering. I speak with authority here because I happen to have a master’s degree in software systems engineering from George Mason University. Granted, building a web browser is hardly a trivial task. There are so many aspects to integrate correctly. In short, it is a complex engineering challenge to make it work on just one operating system, let alone the many operating systems that Firefox supports. Mostly these problems point to a process problem, rather than a programming problem. Just as you can build more cars if you speed up the assembly line, but those cars may suffer something in the way of quality, to keep up with the competition you can push out new versions of a browser more quickly if you cross your fingers and hope that current functionality is not compromised in doing so. It’s clear that a lot of current functionality is compromised by Mozilla’s current approach.

I don’t know exactly how the Mozilla project is run. I certainly like its goals: create a browser that is platform agnostic, that won’t make anyone rich, and that rigorously adheres to the latest web standards. It was this approach that lead to the rise of Firefox in the first place, including a glowing review by me a full eight years ago when it was not yet official. At the time, Microsoft had put its Internet Explorer browser on the back burner. At least you could say that IE did not change a lot. It was quirky, but it was consistently. You could go years between new versions of the browser.

With Firefox, what seems to be missing is good and frequent regression testing. Regression testing means automated testing that tests when you add in new functionality that the current functionality still works. Mozilla is hardly alone in having problems with regression testing. It is a decidedly unsexy thing to do, but vital for good software engineering. It’s also a hard thing to do. I know this from personal experience. The regression testing tools out there tend to be very pricey (Mercury’s suite, now owned by HP, comes to mind) and, for the most part, annoying to use. Most of them cannot handle tiny changes in canned tests, like the change of location of an image on a web page, without failing the test. You are expected to create whole new tests. I am looking into one testing suite that looks like it allows test cases to be reasonably fault tolerant. If so, we can gain a whole lot of productivity doing regression testing.

Doubtless Mozilla is doing some regression testing, but it should probably do a lot more and probably have a much more well thought out process for doing it. If satisfying users is truly their primary goal, they may need more testers and fewer developers. It sounds like it is the other way around.

So I have been seduced by the Google Chrome browser. I won’t use IE. I just loathe it and I can’t quite put my finger on why but certainly it’s not a good thing that it is developed by Microsoft, and its bright blue theme jars me. Chrome, like Microsoft, is a product of another empire, just not one quite as evil, at least not yet, but certainly one targeted to encourage you use all things Google. It’s clear after you run Chrome for a while that it is a slicker product overall than Firefox. It’s also faster and better engineered. For example, each browser tab has its own CPU process. This has lots of benefits; the primary one being it is much less likely to crash. Firefox is catching up here, but even so it is still buggy and slow on my Mac.

I don’t want to love Chrome, but considering how much time I spend in a browser I have to have a browser that works fast, reliably and consistently. Chrome has not been perfect here, particularly with its user interface, which has morphed faster than I would like. But it is standards based, multiple-platform, fast and reliable.

I really want to go back to Firefox. It is the reference implementation for browsers, although maybe not so much anymore the way they throw out new features so quickly. There are certain Firefox behaviors I really miss, like the Bookmark manager in a sidebar. For right now I simply cannot revert. I hope Mozilla gets its act together, and listens better to the needs of its users.

So will it be adios and goodbye forever for Firefox? Or can I say adieu for now, and I’ll be glad to come back when you have your act together? For right now, I say adieu, but pretty soon it is going to be adios.

An app’s not an app, for all of that

The Thinker by Rodin

Christmas often brings a new gadget or two under my tree. This Christmas brought me an Amazon Kindle e-book reader, courtesy of my spouse. While I work my way to the conclusion of my paper-bound tome of David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, I already know that it would be an easier book to read at night in bed on my Kindle.

I have not yet succumbed to the smartphone mania, although I have played with the smartphones of others. I find them neat devices, at least when the wireless spectrum is not too crowded. Arguably, there would be times in my telephone-minimized life when one of these gizmos would prove useful. It would work as a great GPS, and I wouldn’t have to pay $70 to Garmin to get updated maps. I might find it convenient to answer email while mobile, although I have avoided Blackberries specifically so I do not raise the expectation with my boss that I should always be electronically accessible.

Smartphones seem to be much more about the Internet than about the telephone, and generally to do something useful with them you must download an “app” (application), many of which you must purchase. These apps are proving a boon to software developers, who need to pay bills.

I have been following Google’s Chrome for a while now. Many of us are aware of the Google Chrome browser, and it seems to be gaining market share at a fast pace. It is already clearly the number three browser, and most of its share of the browser market is coming at the expense of Internet Explorer. It’s important to distinguish between the Google Chrome Browser and Google Chrome OS, which is a lightweight operating system. Chrome OS is starting to come out of the labs and will soon be embedded into devices like notebook computers. The Chrome browser is available for a number of operating systems.

Just to make things more confusing, Chrome OS is a distinct operating system from Android, Google’s operating system for smartphones. As many of you know who own smartphones, Android and Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS own much of this market. Arguably, BlackBerry OS is the granddaddy in this market, although its devices have traditionally been focused around email. Microsoft as usual is trying to play catch up, and is currently rolling out Microsoft Phone 7 as its smartphone operating system, apparently deciding to give Microsoft Mobile the towel.

For smartphones, apps are a near necessity. Given the small screen size, you should not mind paying for clever apps that make the most of your smartphone. After all, if your smartphone had enough resolution to be a desktop computer, you would not be installing apps. You would surf to your favorite sites instead.

Or would you? The browser makers are now busy standing up app stores. Browsers like Firefox have a proud tradition of user written free extensions that add functionality to the browser. Many of these extensions are being remarketed as “apps” in Mozilla’s soon to be released application store. Arguably, a browser extension is not the same thing as an application. An extension, as the name implies, extends the functionality of the browser. An application, at least in theory, can live separately from the browser. You should not have to run the browser in order to run the app.

Rather, these apps depend on one or more frameworks. Ideally, an app will depend directly on the operating system to handle the messy things that operating systems do. They may also depend on the framework provided by the browser. Mozilla Firefox, for example, is a browser that works on multiple operating systems. Under its hood is a framework that application developers can build on top of that works regardless of your operating system.

By definition, you need to have your browser running in order to run these browser extensions. With apps, it is no longer required. It may be possible to write an app that uses the browser’s framework without needing the browser to actually display anything. Or an app can be written directly for the operating system. Just as Microsoft Word is written to work with Microsoft Windows, Chrome apps are starting to appear that will work directly with Chrome OS.

All this background is necessary to understand where this is leading. Mobile-friendly operating systems in particular are making browsers less important as independently running apps provide a richer experience. This trend is now bleeding over into desktop and laptop computers and endangering the browser and the world wide web.

So why did Google create its own browser called Chrome in the first place? Could they really create a better browsing experience than, say, Mozilla Firefox? Perhaps, but differences in the usability of browsers in general are becoming irrelevant. Some are marginally faster or slower or offer better or fewer features. The Chrome browser is being marketed so heavily that it is hoped that you will accept it and get used to it. With Google products like GMail and Google Docs, you will also get used to having your electronic life “in the cloud” rather than on your personal device. Eventually you may replace your Windows or Mac machine with a lightweight device running Google Chrome OS. When you will do, you will be encouraged to install various apps, many for free, many for money, to do things the snazzy Google Chrome browser cannot do. (This may not be readily apparent if the apps live inside of the Chrome browser, but the effect will be true nonetheless.)

This will in turn tie you closer to Google, its software services and monetize a stream of money toward Google and third party developers, all through apps provided in its store. The result is that you will end up paying more to get content, much of which used to be free. In addition, the browsing experience may be less valuable, as service providers like Amazon spend more of their time and money tuning content to work with applications rather than a browser. If an app takes off the way other viral software did, say, like Visicalc did in the early 1980s, the only way to get content may be through the authorized app, rather than through a browser.

The World Wide Web as we have known it may be ending, as content moves toward being used through apps rather than a browser. The companies that succeed in the apps market hope to be richly rewarded. The Internet, as a neutral platform for acquiring information, may be less useful or, in time, disappear into marginal relevance. Instead, you will need an app to do it. You may find, for example, that to make your flight reservation with Southwest, you must use its authorized app, for which they may charge you a $10 a year annual fee.

Think twice before paying for an app or buying a device running Google’s Chrome OS. You may be locking yourself into proprietary networks, thus balkanizing an Internet where open accessibility has been its strongest feature. My new fancy Amazon Kindle is locked into Amazon’s network. Now I can buy any eBook I want, as long as it is in Kindle format, and therefore as long as I buy it only from Amazon. (Note: Kindles also can show PDF documents, but they are not as easy to read as an eBook.)

Google Chrome needs a bit more polishing

The Thinker by Rodin

For about three months, I have been taking Google’s Chrome browser out for an extended spin. What I am discovering is that while there is a lot to love about Chrome, it has some usability issues that annoy me.

As I noted three months ago, you have to love Chrome for how fast it is. It both loads quickly and renders web pages quickly. Although a new browser, it has proven to be much more stable than my browser for the last seven years, Mozilla Firefox. My instability issues with Firefox may have a lot to do with poor engineering of the many user created add-ons that I have grown accustomed to. Arguably, Chrome is better engineered for both stability and speed. One way it does both is by assigning one computer thread to each open tab window.

Three months ago, add-ons (or extensions as they call them) for Chrome were relatively few. That has changed dramatically. You can find equivalent extensions for most of Firefox’s voluminous add-ons, often written by the same developers who created them for Firefox. In some cases, they lack the maturity of the original Firefox add-on. The Firebug extension for Chrome, at least as of this writing, is just Firebug-Lite, which has maybe fifty percent of the features of the full Firefox add-on. If I need to peer deep into the document object model of a web page to troubleshoot it, I am using Firefox with the Firebug add-on. Still, most of the extensions I care about are already there, often in many subtly different flavors. These include Web Developer, an XMarks bookmarks synchronization tool, Web of Trust (which lets you know of suspicious sites), a Web to PDF converter, a webpage screenshot tool, a tool that automatically converts text links into real links, Chromed Bird (a really sweet Twitter extension), a Weather Underground add-on and a Yahoo Mail Notifier. Doubtless, I would find many more “must have” extensions if I spent more time trying them out.

You would expect Chrome to have a tight integration with the Google Search Engine, but it is not yet smart enough to act like Firefox’s Awesome Bar, which intelligently tracks your most frequent queries and finds them by typing a few characters on the URL field. Similarly, Firefox’s Bookmarks toolbar (where your bookmarks conveniently rest on a window on the side of the browser) is so much more usable than Chrome’s “Other Bookmarks” button and navigating through the multiple levels of bookmarks to get to the bookmark of choice.

In addition, Chrome could use a real menu system, so you can easily get to every feature. (You do get one with the MacOS version because MacOS requires it.) Say you want to open a local file or print a web page. You can click on the “Control the Current Page” button and get to it there, but it is counterintuitive and breaks the standard desktop computing metaphor. Instead, I clicked on the “Customize and Control” button (the little wrench icon) expecting it would be there, but it wasn’t. I sure would also like to be able to add a print button to the toolbar, but if there is a way to do it, it is not intuitive.

I understand why Google made these major changes. They wanted to maximize the extent of the browser window on the assumption that content is what really matters and every pixel counts. The reality is that using a browser requires an intelligent tradeoff between viewing web pages and swiftly navigating to (or finding) where you want to go, and that requires real estate for more controls. Chrome made too many compromises and broke too many metaphors in pursuit of its Holy Grail of making the largest possible browser window.

To understand why they became so anal, you have to remember their long-term vision. They want to kill Windows, and if they kill MacOS as well, they will be even happier. Their vision of the future is that everyone is carrying around a netbook running their ChromeOS operating system which will boot very quickly and immediately dump you into the Chrome browser. All your applications would be web applications that run inside of Chrome. In the netbook world, almost everyone is accessing as a wireless device and they are likely to be keyboard challenged as well. They want to wrest our minds away from the PC metaphor of menus and task bars into something new and compact, behaving more like an intelligent cell phone or iPad. Chrome aligns fine with their Chrome OS vision, but while we live in the Windows/MacOS world, the disconnect is quite jarring. It’s like sitting in a Prius and looking desperately for the slot for the ignition key. In short, right now it’s just weird.

Having said these things, Chrome is so smoking fast that a lot of the time I don’t care. If I just want to search the web to visit a few favorite sites or want integrated access to their search engine, it excels. It’s just that I’ve gotten used to having my browser do all these other tricks. Making Chrome do them as well is going to take time. I suspect Google’s engineers will get us there if we are patient.

At work because I have an extensive collection of bookmarks for obscure places I need to go to quickly in order to do my job, the small latency and instability in Firefox is a small price to pay versus the speed and counterintuitive ways that Chrome works. At home, where my needs are more modest and I have MacOS, I use Chrome. Meanwhile, feeling the heat and losing market share to Chrome, Mozilla is trying to speed up Firefox by imitating Chrome by placing each tab in a thread. Unfortunately, it will take some time implement it, as it requires a lot of reengineering. If they do it quickly enough, I may continue to stay with Firefox indefinitely. Given that Google’s pockets are far deeper than Mozilla’s, I am not too hopeful.

Taking Chrome for a Spin

The Thinker by Rodin

Does it really matter which browser you use? So many of us spend our lives in a browser that it is reasonable to think the answer is yes. Nevertheless, all browsers pretty much do the same thing. Once familiarity sets in, you have to have a compelling reason to move from one browser to another.

In 2004, I ditched the world’s de-facto browser Internet Explorer for a weird upstart browser called Mozilla Firefox. It was an easy switch. It was true that back then, thanks to Microsoft’s proprietary extensions to HTML and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that things would not always behave the same way in both browsers. Six years later, I still have to use Internet Explorer on a few sites, because the application has not been updated to use web standards. This is now largely a past memory. Unless you need some quirky feature like HTML 5 compatibility (which most browsers are racing to address anyhow) most of the rendering oddities are in the past. Not that a few don’t still bite us. Last I checked, Internet Explorer still did not allow rows in HTML tables to dynamically collapse through Javascript.

For six years, I have been satisfied with Firefox, and generally happier with each new release. I loved all the free plug-ins that were available. The latest version of Firefox (3.6) that I recently downloaded introduced personas. These are sort of like themes for the blank spaces around the edge of your browser. It’s pretty neat to look at, but it’s really window dressing, just like the wallpaper on your computer’s desktop. What matters the most to me is usability. Simple tends to be better.

Firefox’s weakness the last year or so has been its instability. It crashes a lot for me on both Windows and the Mac. This could be more annoying than it is, for you can at least restart it quickly and it will remember your open windows. Firefox also suffers from new version syndrome. Once every few weeks it wants to install a new minor version of itself, sometimes with new features, but mostly to fix bugs. As annoying as new versions are, it’s a straightforward and quick process. It’s better than Internet Explorer, which even though it claims to have excellent security is rife with bugs that require all sorts of mostly behind the scenes patching. IE wants to keep you in the dark about its bugs. Firefox is in your face with them by patching them so quickly.

Since I have a Mac, I also have Safari, which I use from time to time. It’s pretty nice, and there actually is a version of Safari for the PC, although it looks quite a bit different on a PC. There are lesser-known browsers out there like Opera (proprietary and not necessarily free) and Konquerer (for Linux boxes). Now there is also the official Google browser called Chrome. Chrome is part of Google’s grand design toward a web-centric architecture. Its operating system Chrome OS, which I wrote about recently, is taking wings and will soon be appearing on fine netbook computers.

I had installed the Chrome browser but had never really put it through its paces. I did so over the last long snow-congested weekend. After a couple hours, I was hooked. I will still need Firefox for quite a while. If Firefox can be made as fast and stable as Chrome, I would gladly drift back to Firefox. I must say though that Chrome’s speed and stability are both very compelling. I didn’t need Firefox to come out with a persona feature. What I need is a browser that is a lot like my Mac: I don’t have to think about it. It should just work. The best browser is like a sheet of glass. It renders the page of interest transparently, cleanly and correctly. Chrome just takes you where you need to go quickly and with (so far) none of the quirky rendering issues that plague most browsers. Through delivering high backwards and forwards compatibility, Chrome seems to have filled the niche. No wonder that Chrome’s browser share is climbing rapidly, mostly at IE and Firefox’s expense.

Clearly, it is not as feature rich as Firefox. The bountiful plug-ins that are available with Firefox for the most part do not exist with Chrome. However, some Chrome plug-ins do exist. My suspicion is that a good part of the Firefox plug-in community is already working on Chrome compatible plug-ins. As a web developer, I need the amazingly excellent plug-in called Firebug for Chrome. I sure hope it is being ported, although Chrome comes with some built in developer features that are quite decent.

The average user will just notice Chrome’s rendering speed, which tends toward blazingly quick. I had no idea so much of the slowness in Firefox was just its code trying to make everything look pretty. Of course, if the Internet is slow or congested, no browser will speed it up, but whatever Chrome is doing to render content quickly it is doing very well. It helps to have very deep pockets. Since a lot of our content comes from Google, Google can do a lot to put its content on the edge of the network so it will download quickly.

Simplicity and too much intimacy with your favorite browser have a downside. It would be nice, for example, if Chrome would refresh the page by pressing the F5 key, which I have used for the last 15 years. (Instead, it is Ctrl/Command-R.) It would also be nice if my bookmarks would appear on the side, as in Firefox, by pressing Ctrl/Command-B. I also like Firefox’s search box in the top right corner, although by integrating the URL field with search engines you arguably have a simpler interface. Perhaps those features will show up in time. Maybe it would be better if they did not. Simplicity also has a certain virtue. Most of us prefer cars that are simple to use. Too many gizmos and gadgets on the dashboard can make for a confusing experience

Here is hoping that the folks at Mozilla address the instability and page rendering issues so I can go back to it. I hate to give any monolithic company, even one as friendly as Google, all my loyalty. Still, Chrome is compelling in a way IE never was. If you try it for a couple days, you are likely to find yourself also hooked.

Love those Firefox Extensions!

The Thinker by Rodin

Some time ago I wrote about my preferred browser: Mozilla Firefox. It was obvious to me months ago that those who tried it would probably feel the same way about giving up Firefox as the gun nuts would about giving up their firearms: when you pry our cold, dead hands off our keyboards. In a word Firefox rocks! It is now up to version 0.9 and only keeps improving.

As if the lovely standard features like tabbed browsing, easy in page search, Google search box and easily customizable toolbars weren’t enough, perhaps the best thing is how extensible Firefox is. That alone is reason to prefer it to Internet Explorer. Can you imagine Microsoft opening up its IE source code and allowing the user community to improve it? Actually it might happen one of these days since there is little money for Microsoft to make in the browser business and they are inept (at best) at patching its many security holes. Since Microsoft gives IE away it may make some sense to let others develop the code for free. Shareholders might appreciate it. For now its value is dubious and exists largely to market products by Microsoft and its affiliates.

But Firefox is wrapped around open source components like the Gecko rendering engine and the XUL framework. As a result very clever developers who don’t mind giving away their work for free are having a field day extending the usefulness of the browser. One fun thing you can do is simply download and install the many readily available themes. If you get bored you can just toggle from theme to theme. Suddenly the same old boring web pages aren’t as boring because the frame is jazzed up!

To me the coolest thing about Firefox is its tabbed browsing feature. Granted it inherited it from the Mozilla 1.0 framework, although most people first encountered it in Netscape 6 (which of course is Mozilla 1.0 under the hood). Once you get the hang of browsing with tabs you can’t let it go. Well earlier this week I discovered the Tabbrowser Extension for Firefox. Now I am not just in love with my browser but I am in ecstasy.

When I am online I live in my browser. I perfer having all my favorite pages open at once. Tabs give me an intuitive and easy way switch from page to page. Out of the box Firefox has cool features like the ability to open a whole folder of bookmarks with each page in a tab. But with the Tabbrowser extension I can finally have links behave the way I want them.

For example when I am in my email client and click on a link I don’t want it to open up a new browser instance. I want the page to appear in a new tab in the existing browser instance. Now I can do this with the Tabbrowser extension, after first adding a line to my prefs.js file and tweaking the Tabbrowser controls a bit. The Tabbrowser extension itself downloaded and installed in less than a minute. I had to close and reopen my browser. I discovered an extremely feature rich set of things I can do with tabs, thanks to the clever programmer Shimoda Hiroshi, who authored the Tabbrowser extension.

It took a lot of experimentation to get things the way I want. I will still tweak it from time to time. But most of the time I want any link on a page to open in another tab. But if the link belongs to the same site I don’t want it to open in another tab, I want it to overwrite the content in the current tab. It took quite a bit of experimenting but I finally figured out a way to get the extension to do just this.

And I’ve just scratched the surface. There are lots of things you can do with tabs with this extension. These include making bookmarks or items on your toolbars open in tabs. But I found most of the time I don’t want to enable this feature. Other neat features include displaying tabs in groups and anchoring tabs to the top, bottom, left or right sides of the browser window.

There are hundreds of extensions that can make Firefox behave the way that fits your mental model, not someone else’s. Admittedly some are more useful and professional than others. But all of them are fun for those of us who like to tinker. But even if you are not the tinkerer type for most people plain old Firefox out of the box will be just fine and a huge improvement over Internet Explorer’s many annoyances.

Firefox is not up to a production release version 1.0 yet but it shouldn’t be too much longer. It seems very stable to me. One tweak I would make to the out of the box Firefox interface would be to add the Print icon to the toolbar. It seems odd that you have to go to File>Print to print something out by default. Most novice users won’t bother to play with the customized toolbars.

At last: the browser done right! And it’s all free and cross platform. Do yourself a favor if you haven’t tried Firefox and download it now.

Goodbye Internet Explorer, Hello Mozilla Firefox

The Thinker by Rodin

My SiteMeter reports tell me that 90% of you are viewing this site with Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Why? Perhaps you just aren’t aware that there is a much better and free browser choice out there. Or maybe you’ve heard the buzz about Mozilla Firefox and are scared to use it. Perhaps you are scared because it doesn’t come with the Microsoft seal of approval. Or that it is still in beta development (version 0.8).

If you are using IE I think it must be largely out of ignorance. If you use Mozilla, or especially it’s latest browser incarnation Mozilla Firefox you won’t go back to Internet Explorer. Rather you will realize how annoying IE was, rather like having to live with Windows Me before Windows 2000 hit the market.

Microsoft seems to have stopped enhancing IE. Occasionally a new patch will come out to plug the latest security hole. But it’s been years since they’ve added any new functionality to the browser. Perhaps with the browser market sewn up they figure why bother: they give the browser away for free anyhow. Microsoft has abandoned plans to make IE available for the Mac OS X. It figures the Mac community is content with the bundled Safari browser. Ironically Microsoft is now emulating Netscape, which lost interest in its browser around 1998 when it couldn’t figure out a way to make money from it anymore. You may recall the rest of the story: Netscape was bought by AOL and the Netscape project was allowed to flounder.

Well times have changed. As a parting gift the Netscape developers gave the original Netscape code to the open source community. For a while Netscape/AOL provided resources to keep the browser development going. But a couple years back they even stopped doing that. So for a year or two now the open source community has been improving the old Netscape code. It is called Mozilla. Mozilla is the same name Netscape gave to the project before they stuck a marketing brand on it. And a year or so back Mozilla 1.0 was released.

The Netscape web site is still around. The Netscape browser is still available. It is currently in version 7.0. But it’s really Mozilla 1.0 under the hood. You can download the latest Netscape 7 browser, but why bother? Do you really want to see pop up ads by default? Do you really want numerous links and advertising pitches to try AOL? You are probably just like me and want a browser that lets you do what you need to do quickly and efficiently.

So download the Mozilla Suite if you wish (includes email client and newsreader) and block pop up windows by default. You will also get a Google search field right next to the address bar and tabbed browsing. Once you try tabbed browsing you’ll wonder why it took so long to introduce such an obvious feature.

But most likely you are happy with Outlook Express to handle your email, so you don’t need the Mozilla email client. And you probably don’t care about the newsreader either. You just want a better browser. The Mozilla community recognizes this and has been working on a browser only product. It’s had many names including Phoenix, Firebird and now Firefox. But it doesn’t matter. Mozilla Firefox may be version 0.8 but it is ready for prime time. If you value your own time you will download it and use it. The browser will easily make you at least 10% more efficient when you are surfing the World Wide Web.

I have to think hard of any features I think work better in Internet Explorer. If pressed I could say that IE loads faster. This is because Microsoft integrated the browser into the operating system, so much of what IE needs to run is already resident in memory when you boot your machine. I also think IE has better features for accommodating the handicapped. But that’s it.

Aside from obvious and subtle improvements to the user interface that will make you markedly more productive, Firefox is also extremely standards compliant. This is really important because the arbiter of web standards is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). IE attempts but doesn’t quite succeed in the standards department. I noticed this recently when I was editing some cascading style sheets. I could get them to work in IE but I couldn’t get them to work in Firefox. What was the problem? I went over to the W3C CSS validator site, tried to validate the file and realized that I shouldn’t put semicolons at the end of my statements. Firefox was saying “this is ambiguous; you need to be more precise or I won’t render it”. But this is an excellent approach. IE allows you to be sloppy when you code your cascading style sheets. Sloppiness means you have no way of knowing how your code will actually be rendered. It is far better to require a web developer to be precise up front than allow such ambiguities.

IE, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways. I hate most of all that you let pop up windows blossom faster than dandelions in my backyard. And I can’t do much about it other than buy third party software that usually but does not always succeed in blocking them. I hate the way IE is used as a large Microsoft marketing machine, leaving bookmarks to Hotmail and MSN and all their partner sites that I don’t want. I hate the endless security problems with the browser. I hate installing the constant patches I need to supposedly keep me secure, but which often introduces new vulnerabilities. On a technical level I hate the way Microsoft, just because it can get away with it, is making web standards harder to enforce. The browser’s document object model, for example, is non-standard. It allows HTML tags like the marquee tag that were never approved by the W3C. I hate that so many web developers are so spineless that they will tweak their Javascript to use the IE document object model. I hate the way that we so willingly and in most cases naively do what Microsoft tells us to do.

Not only does it not have to be that way, you can get rid of all these annoying hassles simply by downloading, installing and using Mozilla Firefox. Here is a real browser that works the way I think. But also here is a true internet-based web development platform I can extend. I’ve installed a number of the many extensions available for Firefox. For example I downloaded an extension that will highlight my block oriented tags so I can see them when I am designing a web page. The same extension also allows me to validate my HTML against a number of standards (XHTML, accessibility to the handicapped etc) with just one or two clicks.

If you try Firefox I assure you that you won’t go back to IE. It’s a no brainer. It also helps that Firefox is free and available for virtually every operating system.

So what are you waiting for? Give Mozilla Firefox a test drive today!