Tech Tip – FireFox and ThunderBird

It’s official! Firefox 1.0 has been released this week. If you don’t know what Firefox is, then shame on you. Firefox is an open source, free, web browser developed by the Mozilla foundation. Complimenting Firefox is Thunderbird, an e-mail client. Thunderbird is still in development but it’s not that far from done.

Get Firefox!

Get Thunderbird

Why should you care about Firefox? Because it’s a damn good browser. If you need proof, all you have to do is realize is that it has 6% of the browser market right now. Before you laugh, that means it is the second most popular web browser next to Internet Explorer; more than half of Firefox users are former IE users; AND its accomplished all this as an unfinished product.

The number one reason that you should switch to Firefox and Thunderbird is that they’re open source. This means that their source code is available for anyone to tinker with. Why does this matter? First, the development process is not dictated by profit. Microsoft says they will not update IE until their new version of Windows, well into 2006, and why should they? They’re not making any money off of IE. Second, because anyone can see the source code, everyone can find the security holes. Contrary to popular belief, hackers like to publish security holes, not keep them secret. Usually, when a bug is fixed in a Microsoft product, someone has found and reported it months, if not years, prior.

The number two reason is extensibility. I’m not talking plug ins here. Both Firefox and Thunderbird make it very easy for independent developers to add functionality to the products. Even though Firefox is days old, and Thunderbird is still not complete, the library of extensions is impressive. The best example of this is the Mozilla Calendar. This is a separate calendar application which uses Apple’s iCal format. It makes a great edition to Thunderbird, bringing it one step closer to the functionality of Microsoft’s costly Outlook, not to be confused with Outlook Express.

With that said, I’d like to go through my list of top 10 reasons why I use Firefox and Thunderbird. These aren’t the standard top features either, you can learn all about those on the Mozilla web site. These are the real, honest to God, reasons why I, a web developer, use them.

Instead of doing a top ten for Firefox alone, I felt that Thunderbird deserved more than a mention. So you get top 5 for each.

The Top 5 Reasons Why I Use Firefox

5. Popup Blocking

Sadly, this should be a given for every browser, but IE only recently added a similar feature. Firefox has had this from day one, and it handles pop ups at the script level instead of the user interface level. This adds additional security because the popup is not simply blocked, the popup code is never allowed to run in the first place.

4. The Web Developer Extension

This is a must have for anyone making web pages. It’s a toolbar; which sits under your navigation; that lets you pull apart every aspect of a web page. It displays the size and path of every image right on the page. It outlines tables. It reveals all the CSS data. It makes you lunch. I could write an article on it alone, but I won’t. Just download it and see for yourself.

3. Tabbed Browsing

I know this is the default feature that everyone mentions, but it really is useful. I won’t lie, it took me a long time to get used to tabbed browsing, I still forget the feature is there. It’s best used when researching, like when you’re looking at a product and then want to find out what people have said about it. You just open a new page in another tab. Then you can quickly switch between the two.

2. Download Manager

This is something that I personally can’t live without. The download manager keeps track of all your downloads, past and present, in one convenient window. When a download is complete, a popup message appears out of the system tray to notify you, even if Firefox is running in the background.

1. Standards Compliance

This is the reason I really hate IE. It’s way too lenient with incorrect coding, and does dome downright weird things with tables. Even when I used it on a daily basis, I hated that I had to always double check my page in other browsers to make sure my code was correct. Firefox is compliment with the W3C standards for HTML code. This means that if your page looks good in Firefox, It’ll look good in every other browser, even IE.

The Top 5 Reasons Why I Use Thunderbird

5. Modern Spam Filter

Bayesian Filtering is the hot new buzz word among e-mail clients. What it does it analyze the content of e-mail that you mark as spam. When similar messages are found, it automatically marks those too. If it falsely declares a message as spam, you simply un-mark it and the filter updates it’s spam-marking technique. In essence, you are training your e-mail client to recognize what you consider to be spam.

4. Built in RSS Reader

I love RSS feeds. This is where you can have the raw headline data from any number of web sites all coming into one place. In other words, you can have news, sports scores, updates from your favorite blog, at a glance in Thunderbird. Firefox does this as well, through the bookmark manu, but it always seemed more appropriate in an e-mail client to me for some reason.

3. Quick Search

This is a really nice alternative to the full blown search feature. The quick search field sits on top of your message pane and allows you to quickly search the current folder. This works much like the coveted iTunes search feature. Even if you don’t use iTunes, you’ll still love this feature.

2. HTML Filtering

The fact that neither Outlook nor Outlook Express have this is reason enough to not use them. Spammers will place image links in HTML e-mail in order to track who is viewing their mail. When you simply open the spam to see if it’s legit, the image is downloaded from the spammers’ server. They then know that you opened the e-mail and send more spam to your address. When you receive e-mail with HTML code Thunderbird will automatically prevent downloading of content from the internet. Whenever it blocks something, it displays a button so you can view the mail you want in all of it’s colorful HTML glory.

1. HTML Filtering

No that’s not a typo. HTML filtering is really that important.

I won’t lie, there are some reasons to not use Firefox. The most important is that some web developers only write for IE, mistakes and all. However, there is an extension for Firefox that will supply a "View in IE" button for pages that give you trouble. The one major drawback to Thunderbird I have found is that it cannot run off of the built in windows address book, presumably to maintain consistency across all platforms. I personally had a problem with this because I use Microsoft Word to print out envelopes to bill my clients.

I have been using Firefox and Thunderbird by default for over a year. I gladly gave up Internet Explorer for Firefox’s reliability, and developer friendly features. My move from Outlook (not Outlook Express) was a little harder since I lost the appointment, and To Do list features. Despite any drawbacks, I have yet to find a reason good enough to switch back. Lately I have realized, in those rare instances I have to use IE, it takes me a while to find the program icon. At least give these programs a shot, at the very least growing support for Firefox and Thunderbird may force Microsoft to add some sorely needed features to their products.

— Matt

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