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The web browser. That simple software application that traverses URIs presented as web pages, images, video or any other content and renders it all neatly inside a compact window may often be taken for granted by the online community who demand 24 hour access.
The rapid succession of mobile browsing into the internet sphere, along with savvy mobile and desktop applications that have capitalised on the user experience — has but added to the indulgence. The term ‘browser’ is now somewhat saturated in terms of its definition.
But this was not always so.
A quick history lesson:
In the days preceding the great browser wars, the first line of browsers began the steps that would completely revolutionise the way users experience the internet. These included early legacy browsers such as Cello, Arena, Lynx, tkWWW and highly influential Mosaic, which was “well on its way to becoming the world’s standard interface” – according to Wired magazine in 1993. The second wave of browsers in 1994 included the IBM Web Explorer, Navipress, SlipKnot and the popular Netscape Navigator, which became the standard browser for the early web. Despite its popularity, Netscape was soon overshadowed by Internet Explorer 2.0, after Microsoft’s foray into the web experience allowed the company to strategically package its trademark browser alongside Windows – the dominating operating system of the time. And best of all, IE was free.
What followed were the first browser wars, with Microsoft undoubtedly emerging triumphant. Microsoft had several factors influencing its browser advantage. These included resources, revenue and the largely dominant Windows operating system. Towards the end of 2002, Internet Explorer‘s usage statistics were at 85%. But, despite IE’s heavy penetration, several other web browsers began springing up, citing a lack of standards, bugs and security loopholes as a driving influence for breaking free of the ‘single-browser’ experience.
The lesser-known non-profit Mozilla foundation was amongst the first to enter the fray – with its Firefox 1.0 browser released in November 2004 – after Netscape open-sourced its browser code to them. Firefox, with its sleek interface, vector graphics support, extension management and developer tools, rapidly gained popularity so that by the end of 2005, Firefox penetration was at 23.6%. Internet Explorer had dropped to 68.9% usage. The next seven years saw the rapid demise of the decade long IE authority. To date, Firefox currently maintains a 42.4% penetration in terms of browser statistics while IE has dropped to a 26.5% stake. Google Chrome, the browser that utilises the WebKit layout engine, also quickly gained popularity with a 24.1% usage share, almost on par with IE.
Introducing Firefox 4:
Surpassing Internet Explorer 9’s 2.35 million downloads in 24 hours, Firefox 4 hit five million downloads in the first 24 hours, making it the fastest downloaded browser to date. The latest offering from Mozilla offers some intriguing new features, a complete redesign and is a major improvement over previous versions.
First, the good stuff:
- The ‘Awesome bar’ navigation allows for autocomplete of URLs, possible matches from browsing history, bookmarked sites and open tabs.
- The interface has now also been improved with tabs now featuring on top and a simplified stop/ reload button. The home button has also been moved to the preferred right side of the search field.
- The browser window is still easily draggable. Cycling through tabs is less cluttered and feels smoother than before.
- The Panorama tab grouping feature which allows users to switch easily between groups of tabs is a welcome feature and great feature. Each group of tabs is given its own browser window, effectively creating the browser equivalent of a virtual desktop. It’s a perfect multitasking tool.
- Speed, performance and memory usage have all been tweaked to be significantly faster than its predecessors and startup time also appears to be much faster than before.
- The add-on system has also been restructured with Firefox moving towards more lightweight extensions with installation occurring in a designated browser window as opposed to a popup menu.
- The browser offers full CSS3 and HTML5 support as well as syncing across multiple devices.
The not-so-good stuff: (don’t worry, there aren’t many)
- The comparisons to Google’s Chrome browser are obvious and unavoidable. Chrome has a lightweight plugin/ add-on system, its tabs are above the searchbar and Chrome’s searchbar incorporates Google’s autocomplete algorithms.
- The relocation of certain browser buttons may annoy existing Firefox users, particularly the refresh button which has now been shifted to the right side of the address bar. It took a while for me to get used to it, as opposed to using keyboard shortcuts, but in the end, the button relocation wasn’t a major issue. Still, Mozilla need to realise that minimalism doesn’t necessarily involve moving every button.
- Some extensions are incompatible with the new Firefox. Again, this is now a major issue as previous versions have suffered from a similar fate and it essentially boils down to installing the required extension update once released. But for extensions you absolutely cannot live without, the waiting process can be painful.
- Overall browser usage is still high and the memory usage increases significantly with the installation of the Flash plugin. Flash has been a bane for browsers for a while now with only Chrome performing slightly better.
In a nutshell, Firefox users will be pleased. The interface is sleeker, more streamlined and the overall browser experience is faster. Mozilla’s Firefox has come a long way in the history of web browsers to become the global leader for browsing content online. In terms of the overall definition of a browser, Firefox 4 has held true to its roots: Providing innovation, security and speed while adhering to the standards of the ever changing web.