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The BIG Reason

Music, opinions, and portfolio of Mark Eagleton, musician and web developer in Northern CA.

Firefox: The Best Worst Browser Ever!

It's widely accepted in the Internet world that Firefox is the end-all, be-all of web browsers. Now that Microsoft's long forsaken Internet Explorer is starting to show its age to more and more of the general internet using public, people are touting it as such in record numbers. Come with me; wont you, as I describe in detail the intricacies that make the best browser for Windows, one of the worst browsers for the Mac.


Okay now, before we all get up in arms about my blatantly loaded statement, let me clarify a few things first:

  1. I'm not lumping Internet Explorer for Mac into my "one of the worst browsers" blanket statement. Microsoft discontinued it more than three years ago and it is no longer installed on new Macs by default. It is obsolete. For those who may not know, it is also worth mentioning that IE Mac is a completely different beast than its Windows counterpart. It had a totally different rendering engine, which, by the way, was WAY ahead of its time. It also pioneered some big features that even Firefox has, which ironically are missing from the newer IE 6 for Windows.
  2. Geko is an awesome rendering engine. None of my complaints have anything to do with Geko. I am merely focusing on features and UI, here. Remember, Mac people have lots of choices when it comes to Geko browsers. Besides Firefox, there are Netscape, Mozilla, Camino and Flock.
  3. Aside from that, I personally think Firefox is a totally kick-ass browser. Its plug-in architecture is second to none. I think the way the find utility is implemented is the best in the industry. Open source projects always get special props in my book, and the fact that it's functionality is consistent across Windows, Mac and Linux platforms, feature for feature, is just plain rare these days.

However, this cross platform consistency is also where things start to fall apart. To keep Firefox easy to develop across multiple platforms, the Mozilla people used an XML based user interface language, or what they like to call XUL. This, in and of it self is pretty smart. It speeds up development time exponentially, since GUI elements can be styled with simple CSS. It's also cool for people like me who build websites, as we can easily make our own skins for the app! The problem is that this method of creating the UI opens it up to lots of little inconsistencies that drive Mac people crazy. These inconsistencies are what most of the Mac people who don't like Firefox are talking about when they say that it just doesn't feel "Mac-like."

Mac-like Defined

What do we mean when we say "Mac-like?" Mac applications generally follow a set of Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) set forth by Apple. This helps keep learning curves down and has a lot to do with why the Mac's fit and finish is so polished. Firefox violates more than it's share of these HIG elements (not as many as Opera, mind you). For example, in version 1.0, the layout of the preference pane was the same as its Windows counterpart, rather than a traditional OS X layout. This made it different than most OS X applications on the market. With the release of version 1.5, many of these preference pane issues have been fixed, and even applied to the Windows version. However, the customize toolbar menu still suffers from a very un-Mac-like interface.

First of all, control clicking the tool bar should provide you with the menu option of "Customize Toolbar..." rather than "Customize..." Secondly, the customize window should be a sheet, and not another window. All toolbar icons should be displayed on the sheet without the need to scroll. There is a "Restore Default Set" button rather than a group of default icons to drag to the toolbar. The icons are spaced too far apart from each other, and the Go button's text label floats to the right of the icon rather than underneath. Does this sound incredibly nit-picky? I'm just getting started.

Many of the old preference pane display issues still effect this window, such as improperly sized buttons with text that is not vertically centered. Select menus are the right size, but the font size is too small. Language in the controls and on the window is also inconsistent with most other OS X applications.

While the majority of these "un-Mac-like" discrepancies have been addressed in the new version, some things still glare at us throughout the app. For instance, the use of 12pt Lucida Grande in every window accessible menu, rather than the normal 14pt that is used in the main OS X menu bar—and all other OS X applications, for that matter. There is also extra padding on the left side of these menus, and they don't use transparency in the background like all other Mac menus do. Do I even need to bring up the Windows 98 inspired form widgets that are completely different than any element in the entire Mac OS X interface?

I understand these are things that most Windows and Linux users roll their eyes at, but they are a big part of why Mac people love the Mac. Things look slick and function the way you expect. You wouldn't want your car to have power windows on just the passenger door, or to have a crooked turn signal arrow on your dash. Little things add up and go a long way when they are given consideration.

Cool Features

Enough with the anal-retentive interface analyzing. Lets talk about things that really count, like all those cool, new features that set it apart from Internet Explorer, like tabbed browsing. Tabbed browsing is VERY cool, but not quite so new if you were using Mozilla in 2001, Chimera in 2002, or Safari in 2003, like many of us Mac people have been. In fact, Firefox's tabbed browsing falls a little short when compared to other Mac browsers, such as Safari, Shiira, Camino and Omniweb—all of which have close widgets on each tab, rather than a single widget to the left of the tab bar. Omniweb's tabs even open in a drawer, can display a preview of the live web page and alert you when new content exists.

Well, how about resizing text? Indeed. A buried feature in IE Win that is hit-and-miss at best. Actually, I don't believe there has ever been a web browser for OS X besides Opera that didn't have this feature. Yes, even Internet Explorer for Mac had it (In fact, it was the first browser on any platform to have this feature). And given that Firefox is the only browser for the Mac that doesn't allow you to place text-resizing icons in the toolbar, I'm afraid it falls in last place as far as this feature goes.

Built in pop-up blocking is pretty sweet, though. It was even sweet when it debuted in Safari more than a year prior to Firefox's release. Sweeter yet is Safari's ability to turn pop-up blocking on and off right from the application menu, or better yet, with a keyboard shortcut! In addition to specifying blocking on a site-by-site basis, Omniweb even lets you specify blocking for different ad sizes.

Firefox is much more light weight and way faster than Internet Explorer, as is every other browser for the Mac. Safari and other webkit browsers are even faster than Firefox. The speed at which a program runs isn't the only thing that makes it faster. Keeping options easy to access often play a bigger roll in over all speed than performance does. Take the simple act of clearing your cache, for instance. A total of 6 mouse clicks in Firefox. In Safari and Camino, it's only 3 if you don't use the command+option+E keyboard shortcut.

The reality is, without it's extensions architecture, there really aren't any features in Firefox that almost every other Mac browser doesn't have and even does a better job of. This extensibility, though, is a BIG caveat, and is definitely where Firefox shines. Surprisingly, though, most of the Mac people I see using Firefox don't have any of these extensions installed. Safari has tons of add-ons as well, but these are much more difficult to make, install and usually come with an additional cost.

Extra Effort for Basic Features

While extensions do add quite a bit of functionality, you still have to install them. You also have to worry about them breaking when a new version of Firefox is released, and if you think the stuff coming directly from Mozilla is lacking in Apple HIG compliance, these extensions tend to be much more so with the lacking. Another sad fact is that most of these extensions mimic functionality already at the core of OS X.

This brings me to the deal breakers. The following missing elements are why Firefox is nothing more to me than another browser in which to test my designs:

  • no support for the services menu
  • no support for the system spell check
  • no support for the system dictionary/thesaurus

These things are built into OS X and are freely available to other applications to integrate. I rely on them regularly in many other applications besides web browsers. These deal breakers, coupled with the UI inconsistencies and the simple fact that features in almost all other Mac browsers are more numerous and implemented better, is the reason I consider Firefox to be one of the worst browsers for the Mac.

A Good Browser To Be On The Bottom

Now, when you go comparing interfaces and features to other Mac browsers, Firefox certainly doesn't stand up. However, when you go comparing them to Internet Explorer for Windows, Firefox is golden! Its interface is easy from an IE Windows transition. It has many more features than IE. It is most importantly much faster and much more secure.

We are fortunate as Mac users to have access to such features as Snap Back, Workspaces, site specific preferences, custom source view with built in FTP and code editing, in addition to all the things that are new to web users on the Windows and Linux platforms. Firefox is a very capable browser on each platform it runs on. It's just that there are some serious contenders on the Mac platform.

I think it says quite a lot about the Mac platform when the best browser for Windows can't stand up to most offerings on the Mac. But don't take my opinion for it. I only use all of these browsers every day. No, no, no, really. Go ahead try them for yourself: