A Tale of Two Betas: Firefox 3 and Internet Explorer 8

Software / Open Source Tech News Tech Reviews

I am going on record that, unless Mozilla changes the direction they are heading, Internet Explorer will push Firefox back to single digit market share within three years. I’m sure a lot of people will flame me that Microsoft could never pull that off, but try telling that to Netscape. Each incarnation of Firefox since at least version 1.5 has not been a significant improvement on the previous version. Yeah, they claim all sorts of new features, but really, what is going on with Firefox 3?

Sure it is supposed to use lower memory, but the user interface is seriously going downhill. They seem so insanely focused on the underlying technologies (which isn’t necessarily bad) that they don’t spend any time on the UI. Look at the new download manager; functionally it actually works a lot better, but I’ll be damned if my parents (or any other average user) would ever figure out how to use the new features it has.

Then there are the areas where they have changed the underlying system dramatically (database driven history and bookmarks) that really don’t work any better than the old way. I ran FF3 Beta 3 for about a month, honestly the new bookmarking/history features adds about 5% benefit (it does the search in the location bar instead of in the history sidebar) but at a cost that every extension written for bookmarks or the history don’t work. That is a major deal breaker for me. Maybe Firefox 3.5 will actually expose more useful functionality for this feature, but it isn’t that great right now.

My real problem is the direction that Mozilla is taking Firefox. Their handling of adding features and juggling extensions is a joke. They consistently seem scared of adding a new feature that would be genuinely useful to the average user. I have seen this first hand on Bugzilla with a feature request for save to PDF support. Firefox 3 has the built-in underlying technology (through Cairo) to save web pages to PDF, but they don’t want to add it as a feature. They just say that it should be delivered through an extension (which exists). The code is all there except for a user interface to expose the functionality to the user!

Every user has to go out and find the extensions though. Why can’t Firefox have official/recommended extensions (maybe weather, gmail, etc) that can optionally be installed with Firefox? Or why aren’t there different versions of Firefox? Just think, they could make a Firefox Developer Edition that would come with many common web developer extensions like Firebug, Web Developer, or HTML Validator.

The biggest problem with extensions is that they never work from version to version. Firefox is a terrible platform in this regard. It is ridiculous that by far most extensions won’t support FF3 it before it launches. But the Mozilla folks seem to believe that that doesn’t matter. Why is it that extensions constantly have to be redone for new versions of Firefox? Hell, even Firefox 1.0 extensions didn’t work on 1.5 but “add-ons” for Internet Explorer 6 still work on version 8!

This finally gets me to Internet Explorer 8 Beta 1. The bottom line? I kind of like it. They are actually going in a direction that I’m interested in with features like Webslices and Activities. Basically, Webslices allow you to subscribe to a portion of web page; similar to how you sign up for an RSS feed. It fits a very different usage scenario than RSS feeds though. A Webslice could be a eBay auction you are following, the status of a friend on a social network, or the latest news headlines. Here is a link to Microsoft’s page and a video on Webslices.

Internet Explorer Activities allow you to select text (anchors can be embedded in the page too) and get context sensitive options. The most obvious example is selecting an address to get a map. The cool part is that the activity can show information (like a map) without leaving the page (see image below). Any website can create activities for IE8 as well; it isn’t locked down to just Microsoft services.

ie8-activities-map-large

The best thing about Activities and Webslices? They just come built-in to IE8. They aren’t some “great” extension that only one in twenty users of a browser with 15% market share have. So with Firefox the feature will be so uncommon (3% of web users) that no web developer can really target it. Within a year of IE8 coming out it will have more than 50% of the market. Consequently, websites will actually implement Activities and Webslices.

Another illustration of where IE8 is going is that it includes a Firebug-esque development tool built-in. The Mozilla people need to come to grips with the fact that a huge amount of the “value” of Firefox to users is found in the extensions. They try to position Firefox as an extensible base platform with a rich ecosystem of add-ons, but the add-ons break between every single version. That is, if the average user has even found or realized that they can add those add-ons.

Bottom line: I haven’t switched to Internet Explorer yet, but if Microsoft and Mozilla keep the trajectories they are on I can’t rule it out in the future.

*Disclaimer: I have been using a Mozilla browser as my primary browser for six years. First Mozilla (aka Seamonkey) v0.95, and then Firefox when it was known as Phoenix 0.6. I have been exposed to some of the development activities on Mozilla’s Bugzilla too. So I don’t want to hear that I’m just some Microsoft fanboy.

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