The popular Firefox open source Web browser includes several pieces of experience-enhancing functionality that many users aren't aware of, says Kevin Yank, technical director with technical publishing company SitePoint Pty. Ltd. That's why his firm decided to release the new book Firefox Secrets, by Cheah Chu Yeow.
In this second interview with SearchOpenSource.com, Yank, who served as lead technical editor on the book, uncovers more of Firefox tips, shortcuts and plug-ins that users need to know about.
What are some of the different options that users have for customizing their Firefox browser? And, what are the benefits of personally customizing the browser?
Kevin Yank: You can install themes to make your browser's look suit your tastes, you can install extensions to feed your need for advanced and helpful features, and you can customize the layout of the various buttons that adorn the browser's toolbars. You can add search engines to the search box at the top of the browser for sites that have provided the necessary plug-ins, and you can configure custom search keywords for those that haven't. You can even tweak the behaviour of built-in features like tabbed browsing; for example, you can control whether links clicked on in other applications (e.g. your email program) open in a new window, a new tab, or the current tab/window. This extension requires Firefox 1.5, which is available in a pre-release version now and should be released before the end of the month.
As installed, Firefox is quite a lean browser, really, but that's one of its strengths. Thanks to the many ways you can customize the browser, this "svelte by default" approach means that you can choose the more advanced features you want and add them to the simple, easy-to-use base as you see fit, without being burdened by a load of features you may never use.
In our last interview, you recommended a couple of useful Firefox extensions. Could you describe two or three additional extensions that you think users should know about?
Yank: My favorite new extension is called Viamatic foXpose (https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=1457), and it's a riff on the new ExposÉ feature in Mac OS X. Just click the new button it adds to the bottom of your Firefox window, and it will show you small previews of the pages loaded in all of the browser tabs that are open. From this view, you can quickly close any tabs you don't need, and then click on the one you want to switch to. This is a huge help to people like me who often find themselves with ten or more tabs open at once.
One of the things people worry about most when considering the switch to Firefox is whether it will be compatible with all of the websites they visit. While the vast majority of sites work just fine (if not better) in Firefox, there are a few stragglers that still won't work properly in any browser except Internet Explorer. To deal with those sites, you can use either of the IE View (https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=35) or IE Tab (https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=1419) extensions! These extensions let you quickly open a problematic page in Internet Explorer (either by launching IE or by loading IE inside a special Firefox tab, respectively) when you need to, and if you visit such a site regularly, you can add it to a list of sites that will automatically open in IE whenever you navigate to them in Firefox.
If you've ever had your browser slow to a crawl as it opened a PDF document when you would have rather downloaded it to view or print later, then the PDF Download extension (https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=636) is for you! Whenever you click on a link to a PDF file, the extension will prompt you to decide whether to view the file in your browser, or download it for viewing/printing outside the browser.
And just to prove that extensions don't all have to be complicated, there's Fitt's Back Button (http://philwilson.org/blog/2005/04/bigger-back-button-extension-for.html), a dandy little tweak that makes your back button (possibly the most-used button in the browser) wider than the other buttons, so that it's easier to click. It sounds like nothing, but this really does ease one of the little frustrations of day-to-day Web browsing.
How do you go about reading RSS feeds with Firefox? What should users know about this subject?
Yank: How you read RSS feeds really depends on the kind of user you are. If you're a casual Web browser, the RSS features built into Firefox might be all you need! Simply watch for the orange "radio waves" icon, which will appear at the bottom of the browser window, or in the address bar in Firefox 1.5. This icon indicates that the site you are currently visiting has an RSS feed that Firefox can subscribe to, so you can stay up-to-date with new content posted on the site without having to actually visit the site to check. Click the icon, and Firefox will prompt you to create a Live Bookmark. This is just like a normal bookmark, except that when you select it in your Bookmarks menu, it will expand to list all the latest headlines on the site. Click any of these to read the associated item on the site. Put Live Bookmarks for all your favorite sites in your Bookmarks Toolbar Folder, and you'll be able to view the headlines from all these sites through convenient drop-down menus from your browser's toolbar.
If you're more serious about your RSS (i.e. if you follow more feeds than can be comfortably managed as Live Bookmarks), you might want to install an RSS reader extension like Wizz RSS News Reader (https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=424) or Sage (https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=77), both of which let you manage and read your subscribed RSS feeds through a browser sidebar.
If you're a complete info junkie like me, you might need a completely separate program for reading RSS, like BlogBridge (http://www.blogbridge.com/) or FeedDemon (http://www.bradsoft.com/feeddemon/). In that case, you'll want to grab the LiveLines Firefox extension (http://heygom.com/extensions/?cat=2), which lets you configure Firefox's RSS notification icon to work with these external programs, instead of creating Live Bookmarks.
What's the best way for an organization to make the jump from Internet Explorer to Firefox? Put another way, what tips do you have for that process?
Yank: The first thing to do is to take a survey of websites that your employees use to do their jobs. You'll want to test each of these to make sure they work with Firefox, although as I mentioned above, most sites these days are.
Next, you'll want to figure out a way to deploy Firefox throughout your network without having to install it individually on each machine. An open source project called FirefoxADM (http://sourceforge.net/projects/firefoxadm) lets you deploy Firefox across an entire Windows network and manage the various settings (providing default and locked values for various browser settings) in the same way that you can for Internet Explorer. In order to perform this kind of auto-installation, you need an installer for the program in MSI format, which you can get from a number of sources (most notably http://www.frontmotion.com/Firefox/).
What would you say are the two single most important Firefox tools for Web developers and what do they do?
Yank: It's hard to pick just two. The Web Developer Toolbar extension (http://chrispederick.com/work/webdeveloper/) lets you pull pages apart as they are displayed in the browser in order to troubleshoot problems, or just to figure out what makes them tick. This is a must-have, so much so that Microsoft were inspired to begin work on a similar add-on for Internet Explorer--it's a veritable swiss army knife for Web developers. The second most important tool is built right into the browser: it's the view source feature. Of course you can right-click on any page to view the source code of that page, but with Firefox you can also select a portion of the page and then choose View Selection Source to see the code for just that portion of the page. The HTML Validator extension (https://addons.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?id=249) extends this feature even more, displaying HTML validation errors at the bottom of the window and highlighting them in the code view when you view the source of any page.
Where can our readers learn more about Firefox?
Yank: On our Website, we offer four free sample chapters in PDF Format from our book Firefox Secrets (http://sitepoint.com/books/firefox1/). The sample chapters contain dozens more tips, tools, and recommended Firefox extensions.