Book: Don’t Click on the Blue E! Switching to Firefox
Author: Scott Granneman
Publication Date: April 2005
Info: xiv + 267
While Microsoft Explorer has been obsolete on the Mac for a while, Windows users are still pretty much stuck with it. Besides being the Windows XP default browser, it is also the only way to download the Windows system updates from Microsoft, so even if a Windows user happens to use another browser for surfing the Internet, they’re going to have to use Explorer from time to time anyway. The upshot to this is that most Windows users don’t even bother to download and use alternative browsers. This has made it very difficult for third-party browsers, most famously Netscape, to maintain market share or even get off the ground altogether.
However, a series of very serious security issues have begun to get a lot of Windows users feeling very anxious about Internet Explorer. The concerns centre on the way Explorer is so tightly integrated with the operating system, that anyone who can find a way to exploit Explorer can relatively easily extend this to the entire operating system. ActiveX, for example, is a key enabling technology that allows web designers and programmers to come up with interactive tools and programs. In this sense, it’s somewhat like Java, Flash, or even QuickTime, but unlike those tools, ActiveX inherits whatever authority over the operating system that the person using the browser has. This has turned out to be a recipe for disaster, with ActiveX being hijacked by all sorts of miscreants and criminals to infect PCs with adware, spyware, viruses, and other types of malicious code.
In “Don’t click on the Blue E! Switching to Firefox” Scott Granneman has written a book for the PC user who is fed up with the security issues inherent to Internet Explorer and would like to find a safer, easier to use, alternative. Surprisingly enough, the book isn’t exclusively about Firefox, and the appendix includes some pretty detailed studies of the major Windows, Mac, and Linux alternatives. But having said this, the book is primarily written for Windows users looking to make the jump to Firefox. So, with that said, is there anything here for the average AppleLust reader and Mac user?
The short answer is yes, but the long answer is that this is a good book that will appeal in a rather unexpected way. While Chapter 2 is a fairly standard “Firefox for beginners” sort of thing, the rest of the book is much more diverse and interesting. The first chapter is one of the best, and indeed one of the most fascinating tech essays I’ve read in quite a while. Granneman manages to condense the history of the web browser from Tim Berners-Lee and CERN through Mosaic, Netscape, the “Browser Wars” and Explorer’s eventual rise to dominance. He handles this nicely through a mix of screenshots, text, and links to relevant web sites. Chapter 1 also details the flip side to the Explorer success story: problems with security; a relatively poor feature list compared with the alternatives; and that the program has evolved only slowly in recent years, and is unlikely to be updated before the release of the “Longhorn” version of Windows in 2006.
As mentioned earlier, Chapter 2 takes you through the whole installation process as well as the all-important configuration stage, the step at which you import things like bookmarks from Explorer into Firefox and thereby slot the new program into your workflow as painlessly as possible. One of the key things about Firefox is that it is a free, open-source, program; this means that it costs nothing to use and any user is at liberty to change the source code as they wish. Obviously very few people will actually do that, but some do, and their cooperative efforts mean that security alerts are usually fixed very quickly. Granneman contrasts this with Explorer, where many months can go by without security issues being resolved, and in many cases these problems never get fixed, with Microsoft offering only workarounds or alerts.
Chapter 3 details the Firefox user experience, from things like managing bookmarks and choosing search engines through to setting the toolbars and sidebars the way you want them. Mac users will find Firefox much less alien than Windows Explorer users if only because a lot of Firefox’s features have been in Safari for years, such as tabbed browsing, pop-up blocking, and a built-in Google search box. However, there is still plenty in this chapter worth reading, because in many ways Safari lags behind Firefox in terms of features and options. As far as web searches go, Safari only offers one built-in search box that uses the Google engine; in contrast, Firefox users can use whatever search engine they want by pulling down the options list inside the search box.
Another difference between Safari and Firefox is that Firefox comes with a much longer list of interesting and unusual plug-ins. Some, like QuickTime, are essentially industry standards and shouldn’t surprise anyone, but others are much more specialised. Granneman devotes the whole of Chapter 4 to the plug-ins, and does a very good job of selling Firefox as a multimedia-savvy browser right up there with Safari, Explorer, or Netscape. Like a lot of open source software, the Firefox interface isn’t as tightly controlled as, say, Macintosh programs, and themes of various kinds have proliferated. Firefox also enjoys its own GoogleBar, a version of the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer for Windows. Other plug-ins supply things like weather forecasts and games.
The final chapter covers advanced topics, but includes a fair amount of stuff that even casual users will find helpful. One of my favourite features is the Find box, which instead of being a dialogue box (as it is with Safari) is built into the toolbar at the bottom of the window. Search terms can be used as you browse a page or even jump to another page, making text searches completely intuitive. Another useful feature that Granneman details is the ability of Firefox to quickly send the current page to being viewed to Internet Explorer, an essential trick for viewing web pages that (for who-knows-what reason) have been designed exclusively for Explorer.
Firefox is perhaps the most configurable web browser out there. Thanks to its open source license, programmers have come up with all sorts of nifty ways to make Firefox a powerful way to explore the Internet. Two of the plug-ins that Granneman describes exemplify this well: Adblock and Nuke Anything. The first, Adblock, does precisely what it says; it blocks advertisements embedded in web pages. While it doesn’t do this automatically, or for that matter intuitively, over time you can train this plug-in to dramatically tidy up web pages you like to visit that spoil your experience by having brightly coloured advertisements you don’t care about. Nuke Anything is a plug-in designed for those who need to produce printout of web pages. Even supposedly printer-friendly web pages often have content (such as graphics and advertisements) that spoil the layout of the page. Nuke Anything allows you to selectively remove items you don’t want so that what is sent to the printer is clean and easier to read.
Appendix A is a surprisingly meaty comparison of the mainstream web browsers on Windows, Linux, and the Mac. Part history, part showcase, Granneman makes a pretty decent job of highlighting what’s good and bad about the various options. Mac users will be pleased to see several of their favourites included, not just Safari but also OmniWeb, Opera, and iCab. Lynx, the text-based browser that runs in the Mac OS Terminal, also gets a crack at the whip. Appendix B summarises Firefox configuration and issues like cookies, and also has a pretty neat Easter egg right at the end!
The preceding has been all very positive, and that reflects the fact that this is a well-written and useful book. However, there are some issues with the book. It is replete with web addresses; not necessarily a bad thing, but in Chapter 1 these are quite often used by Granneman to take the reader to a discussion or explanation of some fact he had sprung on them earlier on in the chapter. No, no, no. This approach works fine on a web page, but in a book it is clumsy and annoying. If something needs to be explained, then the author needs to do so in the text. People don’t buy books to be referred to someone else. They can do that online. The purpose of a tech book is to condense and compile the discussions and explanations that have been thrashed out on web sites and in journals, and lay them out for the reader with perhaps a little editing and commentary.
Like many other O’Reilly books, “Don’t Click on the Blue E!” includes online content, including electronic versions of the book. An activation code comes with the book, but part of the registration process required typing in a word from a given chapter of the book, presumably to stop people sharing activation codes. However, I was totally unable to get this to work. The web page requests the last word from a particular chapter, but the tail ends of the chapters were lists of web addresses, and it wasn’t obvious to me exactly what “the last word” in such an address might be. There is also the title of the chapter running at the foot of each page, so I tried some of these, but still no joy. Eventually I gave up; this “last word” security question approach might be okay with books using a conventional layout, but with this book, it simply didn’t work.
The book is also very PC-centric. While the vast bulk of the matter pertaining to things like using Firefox are platform neutral, downloading plug-ins, importing bookmarks, and so is not. Granneman doesn’t explain how to import bookmarks from Safari into Firefox, for example. These considerations aside, Granneman has done a very good job though, and this is certainly a book that can easily be recommended for any Mac user planning on making the switch from Safari to Firefox.