Switching to Firefox

Microsoft has recently been forced to update Internet Explorer, to the detriment of its users. A patent ruling has resulted in users having to click a button before any ‘plug-in’ content can be loaded on a website. This is annoying as hell. Visit onegoodmove in an up-to-date IE6 and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the first time I can see a reason for average users to switch to Firefox1.

By ‘average user’, I mean somebody with little knowledge of software or hardware. They want to use the internet just like they want to use Word or Excel – they have no time or interest in learning their way around computers. I think this represents a huge number of people, and they shall go collectively by the name ‘Joe Sushi’ in this post. I’ve arbitrarily decided that he’s a he. No slight should be inferred, it’s just neater than writing s/he all the time.

Why should people switch to Firefox? The first argument is security. This has never really convinced me, because I’ve found that Joe Sushi is wary of anything that says ‘you must update your software’. His first thought is ‘it’s working fine at the moment, thanks, and how do I know you’re not just going to download a virus?’. Although you could argue that Internet Explorer has had more security issues2, both Firefox and IE need updating on a regular basis. When security issues are found, Firefox and MS release patches in the same amount of time. Old versions of Firefox and IE are both vulnerable to security problems, and once Joe Sushi becomes aware enough of the value of keeping his browser up-to-date, the security argument becomes far less convincing. Sure, IE problems are likely to be more prominent – a virus could circulate a URL that exploits an IE vulnerability and infects your computer – but is this likely? The chances of this happening to any given individual are very slim, and I think they’re outweighed by the advantages in IE’s favour.

IE, for all its flaws and rendering issues, is the browser standard to which all websites must comply. Almost every website in the world will work fine with IE, and this is the killer feature. Yes, Firefox’s rendering engine is excellent, but it has problems with plenty of websites that look fine in IE. Sure, this is normally the result of bad page design, but Joe Sushi doesn’t care. Many online banks demand IE because it’s far easier to comply with one browser than the myriad available, and they have to pay technical support staff to answer phones. Joe Sushi just wants a website that works. Somebody with a little knowledge of browsers will switch to IE for that particular site, but is Joe Sushi going to want to do that? Of course not. Do you want to tell him why he should juggle two different programs when one seems to work fine?

The basic Firefox package is essentially an IE6 clone, with tabs. Joe Sushi doesn’t care about extensions (or tabs, for that matter), he just wants to browse the net as he always has. Firefox provides an Internet Explorer not made by Microsoft, but, to to Joe Sushi’s eyes, it’s inferior. IE is also integrated into Windows (for better or worse) and many programs are hard-coded to run IE when launching a URL. This is indeed rather silly, but there’s no way around it.

However, IE has never annoyed Joe Sushi before. Clicking a pop-up button, with associated beep, gets old very quickly. A large number of sites will be affected, too. IE7 should fix the majority of IE6’s problems, but this issue may remain if MS can’t overturn the court ruling3. It’d be nicer if software patents were scrapped outright, given that they inhibit practically all innovation, but I can’t see that happening. I should think IE’s annoyance factor will win Firefox a few converts.

Interestingly, an MS spokesman says:

This is not an issue just for IE…This is a potential issue for Netscape Navigator, for Opera and for other browser vendors. This is an industry issue.

Netscape Navigator? As long as they’re keeping up with the times. However, I’d bet that nobody’s going to sue the Mozilla foundation, or Opera. MS is where the money is, after all.

  1. I’ve deliberately used Firefox as an example because I think it’s designed as a direct IE replacement, especially in the default download. Much of the above applies to Opera etc. too []
  2. and this may have more to do with the number of people looking for exploits, rather than inherent security problems, although this is a contentious topic []
  3. there may be ways for website designers to bypass the issue, but older sites will still suffer []