Mozilla Firefox Extensions

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2403, 2006-01-20, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 20 and 22) and their website.

Most computer users spend a significant amount of their computing time — and for some, much of their personal lives — surfing the Internet. This trend will likely continue, as more software development firms offer Web-based applications that incorporate the same functionality as similar computer applications that must be installed and run on each individual's machine.

Given the importance of the Internet to most computer users, it would seem logical that they would take some time to find the best tools for the job — particularly the primary tool, their Web browser. But far too many people simply resign themselves to using whatever default browser is built into their operating system. In the case of PCs, this usually means Microsoft Windows as the OS, and Internet Explorer as the browser.

But using Internet Explorer without considering the alternatives, is a real shame, if only because Explorer has repeatedly shown itself to be prone to numerous security weaknesses. Moreover, it will likely fall prey to even more security problems in the future, in view of Microsoft's alarming history of releasing non-secure operating systems, e-mail clients, and, in the case of "Internet Exploder", Web browsers. Even worse, the average time it takes Microsoft to create and make available a security patch, has generally been much longer than that of the competition.

Another worthy reason for finding a replacement for Internet Explorer, is that if all the major browsers were ranked by overall functionality, it would likely be at or near the bottom. That's partly because it's been a long time since Microsoft has made significant improvements to Internet Explorer. In fact, during the past few years, while Microsoft was releasing a series of critical updates to plug security holes, other browsers were forging ahead with greater features.

Running with the Fox

For all those Web surfers using a Windows PC, I heartily recommend Firefox, a free and open source browser developed and supported by the Mozilla project. Mozilla is largely a spinoff of Netscape, which offers its own browser, which at one time had a lot more market share than Internet Explorer.

Even "out of the box", Mozilla Firefox is a better browser than Internet Explorer, if only based upon a handful of unique features: It can display multiple Web pages in the same instance, each with its own tab. By default, it automatically blocks most pop-up ads. It offers much greater security, by not running ActiveX components. It has built-in support for Google and RSS news feeds. Last but not least, it runs on more platforms than does Internet Explorer — Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

But that's certainly not the full extent of Firefox's advantages. Like so many other open source projects, Firefox was designed so that its functionality can be supplemented with "extensions". These are small modules that can be added to Firefox by the Internet user, and provide the ability to perform a wide range of tasks right in the browser. Users can reference dictionaries and translation services with a single click, utilize Google specialty searches easily, block annoying banner ads, save an entire Web page at once, and automatically reload a page periodically (just as examples).

Extend Your Browser's Brawn

Even though developing a Firefox extension requires knowledge of computer programming in general — and XUL and JavaScript in particular — merely using a Firefox extension is as simple as pointing and clicking within Firefox. For instance, to add a calculator to Firefox, you could point Firefox to http://calculator.mozdev.org/, click on the "Download" link, and click on either one of the "Install" links. When the "Software Installation" dialog box appears, click the "Install Now" button, and then restart Firefox after it is finished downloading the extension.

If your installation of Firefox is set to not automatically load software from other sites (for greater security), then instead, right-click on the installation link of whatever extension you want, save it to your local drive, use File > Open to open the extension file, and continue as above.

There are websites that contain lists of available Firefox extensions that you can try. Extension Room is the most comprehensive, while Mozilla Update features the most popular extensions, as well as the newest.

My MVPs

While probably every experienced Firefox user has their own set of favorite extensions, here are just a few of the ones that I find invaluable: AdBlock is a more functional advertisement blocker than Firefox's built-in image blocker. It allows the user to specify what advertising websites should not be allowed to display content within any viewed Web pages. What is especially powerful is that an unlimited number of sites can be specified using a single filter, such as "*/ads/*".

You could spend time developing your own list of filters, slowly weeding away one advertising source after another, by adding to your list a filter that matches the URLs of their ads. But to avoid all that trouble, start with a comprehensive existing list, such as Pierceive's Filterset.G. You could periodically download that list and update your own AdBlock list.

But even that process has been automated for you, by another extension, Adblock Filterset.G Updater. For even more automation, try AdBlockLearner to easily add new filters with a right-click.

For those of us who are obsessive about saving the addresses of valuable websites, then Copy URL+ will save you time — time that you can spend away from your computer, getting outside, and appreciating nature… or finding more websites to bookmark. Copy URL+ allows the bookmark enthusiast to save the current Web page's title and URL into the system clipboard, with a single right-click on the page. Do that often enough, and you can end up with thousands of bookmarks. (See http://www.ross.ws/links/ for telling proof.)

As more advertisements on the Internet take the form of Flash presentations, the ad-weary user will appreciate FlashBlock, which replaces each Flash presentation with an unobtrusive blue "f" button, which mouse hovering turns into a handy "play" button, in case you want to run the presentation.

So if you are still using Internet Explorer on your PC, now's the time to download and install the latest version of Firefox, and add some useful extensions to it. Installation of Firefox is quick and painless, and it even imports your Internet Explorer settings. But not the security weaknesses.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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