Enterprise Software

SolutionBase: Smoothing the transition from Internet Explorer to Firefox

The browser wars are back, with Firefox leading the charge against Internet Explorer. Making the transition can be rough, but if your company is considering switching to Firefox, these tips may make it easier.

Smoothing the transition from Internet Explorer to Firefox

Have you gotten the memo stating that your company is officially dropping support for Internet Explorer in favor of the newly minted 1.0 version of Mozilla Firefox? No? Check your mail. On a serious note, Firefox is truly taking the browsing world by storm. At the end of 2004, Firefox had been downloaded more than 10 million times.

Why all the hype?

Firefox is widely considered to be more secure than Internet Explorer. However, IE enjoys a very strong lead in both market share and longevity, so there are probably a number of things you've gotten used to in IE that aren't readily apparent in Firefox. This article will help point out the obvious differences and show you some useful Firefox extensions that might ease your transition or further improve your browsing experience.

Differences

There are key differences between Firefox and IE. Firefox is regarded as a more secure browser than IE. Since Firefox doesn't support ActiveXï¿?a common vector used by hackers to attack IEï¿?Firefox is inherently not susceptible to the same types of problems that plague IE. Of course, with 95 percent of the market share, IE is a much more attractive target than Firefox, so who knows what will happen as Firefox gains popularity? Even the Firefox developers acknowledge that some Firefox features could be exploited by hackers.

Firefox sports tabbed browsing, which, at first glance, might not seem like a big deal, but it's a feature that will be hard to live without once you start using it. I like tabbed browsing when I'm doing Web searches, since I can open various results in different tabs but in a single browser window. To open a link in a new tab, either right-click the link and select Open In New Tab, or click the link while holding down the [Ctrl] key.

Firefox also features a pop-up blocker, which only recently made its way into Internet Explorer (via the Windows XP Service Pack 2 update). These days, a pop-up blocker is a must-have for serious Web surfers who want to cut down on productivity-killing, in-your-face advertisements.

Moving from IE to Firefox

There are a few things to keep in mind when using Firefox. After all, it's still an IE world, so folks using an alternative browser need to make some concessions.

Useful installation feature

One problem in switching to a different browser lies in transferring all of your bookmarks, browsing history, cookies, and passwords to a new installation. Fortunately, during the installation process, Firefox offers to handle all of this for you so that your new browser loads up, and you can pick up where you left off.

Masquerade as IE

One problem with many Web sites is their support for Internet Explorer only. In reality, many of these sites would work just fine, or good enough, with other browsers, but some designers go so far as to specifically block alternative browsers from accessing their sites.

With Firefox, you can trick sites into thinking you're running Internet Explorer. Sure, some sites will render incorrectly, but at least you'll be able to access those sites that block non-IE browsers for no good reason.

A lot of sites suggest manually adding a configuration string to Firefox. I don't recommend doing this because you might end up rendering Firefox unusable. If you've done this and gotten an error such as "Java Plug-in for Netscape Navigator should not be used in Microsoft Internet Explorer. Please use Java Plug-in for Microsoft Internet Explorer instead," load the prefs.js file from C:\Documents and Settings\your username\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\default.xxx into Notepad. Then remove the general.useragent.override line from the file. After that, Firefox will work again.

The better way to change user agents is to use a preferences toolbar that was designed with this as one of its functions. Available from Mozdev.org, the new preferences toolbar works with the latest release of Firefox.

To install prefbar, click the installation link on the front page of the site. Next, click the Install PrefBar button on the installation page. If you're using a default installation of Firefox, a yellow bar will appear at the top of the window, indicating that automatic software installation was blocked.

To enable installation, click the Edit Options button and add prefbar.mozdev.org to the list of sites allowed to install software. Follow the instructions in the resulting dialog boxes to complete the installation of the preferences toolbar. When the installation is complete, exit and restart Firefox to enable the new extension. Figure A shows the new toolbar in action.

Figure A

The user agent drop-down menu lets you trick sites into thinking you're using a different browser.

Each time you restart Firefox, the user agent is automatically set back to the default in order to prevent the startup problems that occur when the agent string is set improperly. This won't work all the time. Some sites are stubborn and really want IE. Windows Update is a prime example. Don't even bother visiting windowsupdate.microsoft.com with anything except the real IE.

And when you really need IEï¿?

Unfortunately, there are times when you're going to need to use Internet Explorer whether you like it or not. It's not that hard to load IE and copy and paste the URL, but it's a lot easier to use the ieview Firefox extension located at ieview on Mozdev.org.

To install the ieview extension, click the Installation link on the ieview page and then click Install IE View v. x.xx. Again, you might be presented with a yellow warning bar indicating that installation was blocked. Click the Edit Options button, add ieview.mozdev.org to your list of allowed installation sites, and try the installation again. To automatically launch IE and load a page, right-click anywhere on the page and choose View This Page In IE, as shown in Figure B.

Figure B

Right-click anywhere on the page and choose View This Page In IE to automatically launch IE and load this page.

For Yahoo fans

Yahoo fans using IE have enjoyed the Yahoo toolbar for quite some time (Figure C). While Yahoo doesn't officially release its Yahoo Companion for alternative browsers, an unofficial release is available for Mozilla-based browsers, including Firefox, at the Yahoo Companion page on Mozdev. Follow the links to install this extension. You might need to add companion.mozdev.org to your list of allowed installation sites.

Figure C

 

Firefox's features

Firefox offers several features, some of which may help save you time and effort by automating tasks. Let's look at a few.

Launch a Web-based mail program

If you use a Web-based mail system, such as Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, GMail, or mail.com, and you click a mailto link on a Web site, your operating system's default mail client starts up and even populates the To field. You can use the WebmailCompose extension for Firefox, however, to automatically fire up your favorite Web client.

You install the extension by following the instructions on the site. Once installed, WebmailCompose defaults to loading mailto links into GMail. You can change this behavior, as well as other settings, by right-clicking a mailto link and selecting WebmailCompose | Settings from the resulting shortcut menu. In Figure D, I've configured WebmailCompose to use mail.com as my Web-based mail service.

Figure D

From this shortcut menu, you can either compose e-mail or change the extension settings.

Stocks

What desktop would be complete without stock information? The Stock Ticker extension creates a stock ticker link on the left side of the screen. Download the Firefox extension, adding netripper.com to your list of allowed download sites, if necessary. Restart Firefox after the installation.

To configure the Stock Ticker extension, go to Tools | Stock Ticker | Edit and add any stocks you want to watch. The configuration window provides a link for a stock symbols lookup. You can also see a list of all stocks at once by choosing Tools | Stock Ticker | View All.

Open downloads in their default applications

When you download a file, Firefox asks you to select an application in which to open that file. For example, if you download an MP3 file, you need to tell Firefox which application to use to open the download; Firefox won't automatically use your operating system's defaults. The OpenDownload extension adds an option called Open With Default Win32 Application to the list of things you can do with a downloaded file. When you use this extension, the downloaded is saved to a temporary location and then pushed to the operating system to determine the application to use for execution.

To use OpenDownload, just install it from the OpenDownload Web site and select the Firefox installation. Restart Firefox after the installation. When you click on a download link, the new Win32 option will appear in the list of choices, as shown in Figure E.

Figure E

Use the new Win32 option to let the OS choose the right application.

Burning up the Internet

Firefox is enjoying huge success with its recent 1.0 debut and is making steady, if small, gains on Internet Explorer's share. With some of these tips and extensions, you can put Firefox to use in your organization with very minimal impact and help your users move away from potential IE security risks.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox