As the Internet becomes a more integral part of our professional and personal lives, we are seeing a gradual but unrelenting migration of computer data and functionality from the desktop to the Web. As this trend continues, and as more people worldwide get connected to the Internet, there will undoubtedly be greater usage of Web browsers — even taking into account the increasing use of cell phones and other hand-held mobile devices for accessing the Web.
In light of the significance of the Web for most if not all computer users, it seems only reasonable that they should invest some time and energy into finding and optimizing whatever tools make their Web surfing as productive and pleasant as possible. The first step naturally involves choosing the best browser for the job. Unfortunately, far too many individuals do not bother to make the effort, and instead settle for whatever Web browser happens to be the default for their operating system. For PC users, this typically means Microsoft Windows, and, in turn, Internet Explorer (IE). Sadly, even though Microsoft has made worthy strides in improving IE — especially in version 7 — this particular browser continues to be a source of significant security problems for users, and a source of page styling headaches for Web developers, as a result of its legendary nonconformance with accepted Web standards.
Fortunately, "Internet Exploder" is not the only Web browser option available. Windows users can instead choose Mozilla Firefox, Opera, Google Chrome, or a host of other Windows-based browsers. Linux users can use Firefox or other alternatives. On the Mac, Safari has proven quite popular. In this article I will focus on extensions for Firefox, which is a free and open source application developed and supported by the Mozilla, an organization dedicated to an open Internet for everyone — unlike some huge software vendors that distribute proprietary products.
Browsing with the Fox
If market share trends form any indication of browser quality and usability, then the clear winner is Firefox. According to Net Applications's Market Share report for Web browsers, Firefox continued to ratchet upwards in popularity: During October 2008, it reached and surpassed the 20 percent level — while IE has dropped to less than 72 percent. The trend is markedly stronger according to the browser usage statistics of W3Schools, whose site attracts more tech-savvy visitors. The statistics indicate that, as of November 2008, Firefox reached 44.2 percent market share, and is quickly gaining on IE, whose versions 6 and 7 combined garnered 44.6 percent of the market.
For anyone who has switched from Internet Explorer to Firefox, it is clear as to why Firefox is becoming so popular. Even a completely vanilla and un-customized installation of Firefox is noticeably superior to whatever version of Internet Explorer might be installed on one's PC. Admittedly, IE is trying to play catch-up with version 7; nonetheless, Firefox — like the other open-source alternatives — is forging ahead with even greater functionality. In addition, it supports more major operating systems than IE, namely, Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.
Yet that is by no means the full extent of Firefox's advantages over IE. Similar to many other open source software projects, Firefox was developed so that its functionality could be supplemented with "extensions", which are small modules that the user can add to their copy of Firefox, thereby enhancing it with features not found in the default installation. Through the use of extensions, users can blog or chat directly within Firefox, send SMS or instant messages, gain greater control over Web-based email accounts, block banner ads, start or stop their favorite MP3 player without leaving Firefox, and control other content such as Flash movies — to name just a handful of the many possibilities.
Extending Your Browser's Power
Installing and using a Firefox extension is as simple as pointing and clicking within the browser. For example, to add a calculator to Firefox, you could go to the Calculator home page, click the "Add to Firefox" link, and in the dialog box that pops up, click on the "Install Now" button. Finally, restart Firefox after it is completed downloading the extension. Now, when you want to perform a mathematical calculation, just press Alt + C in Firefox, and you immediately have access to a calculator more powerful than the calculator applet provided with Windows.
The steps that you go through to install an extension vary somewhat based upon whether or not your copy of Firefox has been set to not automatically load any software from other websites — a laudable security measure. If this is the case, then right-click on the installation link of whatever extension you are interested in, save the extension file (an .xpi file) to your local hard-drive, use File > Open in Firefox to open the extension file, and then continue as normal — as if you had clicked on the install link on the extension's home page.
Arguably the best source for finding all of the available Firefox extensions and other add-ons, is the Firefox Add-ons page, which lists hundreds of them, organized into 17 categories: Alerts & Updates, Appearance, Bookmarks, Dictionaries & Language Packs, Download Management, Feeds, News & Blogging, Language Support, Photos, Music & Videos, Privacy & Security, Search Tools, Social & Communication, Tabs, Themes, Toolbars, Web Development, and Other.
Some of My Favorite Things
No doubt every experienced Firefox user has his or her own favorite extensions. Here are several of the ones that I have found to be most useful, in addition to the aforementioned calculator extension: AdBlock is a more powerful online advertisement blocker than Firefox's built-in image blocker. AdBlock allows you to specify what advertising websites are not allowed to add content inside any of the Web pages displayed within your Firefox — unless of course AdBlock is temporarily disabled, which is easy to do. AdBlock is quite flexible in the way that you can specify the site addresses, because it allows simple "regular expressions". For example, "*/ads/*" would filter out everything from http://www.example.com/ads/, http://www.example.net/ads/, etc.
AdBlock is only as effective as the set of ad filters that you specify in the extension's settings. In order to avoid having to spend any time creating your own set of ad filters, use one of the many excellent filter lists developed by others. Pierceive's Filterset.G was considered one of the best years ago, but its future is in jeopardy currently due to a lack of funding for continuing the website. Or use Adblock Plus, which is more actively maintained.
Those of us obsessed with saving the addresses of valuable websites that we discover, should be delighted with the Firefox extension Copy URL+, which allows you to save the current Web page's title and URL into your Windows system clipboard, simply by right-clicking on the page and choosing a menu item from the context menu that pops up on the page. Note that the latest versions of Firefox do not support the most recent version of Copy URL+ (1.3.2). Consequently, to install Copy URL+, you will need to disable Firefox from checking the compatibility and security of all your add-ons, via the "about:config" settings within Firefox: extensions.checkCompatibility = false, and extensions.checkUpdateSecurity = false. To learn more, use your favorite search engine to get the details.
Earlier it was mentioned that you can control the playing of MP3 files directly within Firefox. This can be done using FoxyTunes, which adds a toolbar to the bottom right-hand corner of your Firefox window, with controls for playing, pausing, stopping, etc. the song currently queued up in whatever audio player you have chosen within the FoxyTunes settings. FoxyTunes currently supports 26 such players, including iTunes.
If you are still using the least secure browser on the market, Internet Explorer, then do not hesitate to download and install the latest version of Firefox, and add some useful extensions to it. The installation of Firefox is free, speedy, and straightforward. It even imports your Internet Explorer bookmarks, passwords, and other settings — just not the security holes.