Monday, December 19, 2005

The Fox'd necessities

Yet another tale from the continuous battles against Desktop apps has come to an end. It all began when the Firefox browser on my work computer was upgraded to 1.5, SessionSaver ceased to function.
I've been using Opera for ages, and am used (and dependant) on those session savers. I tend to view about 10-15 sites simultaneously, and just can't function without any method of restoring them automatically. However, the extension was incompatible with Firefox 1.5, which caused it to be removed. Any attempts to install it were blocked against the user restrictions on this computer. I finally resolved this issue by downloading the .xpi, extracted and copied its contents to the firefox folder in my user folder. It was a pretty simple and painless operation, to which I need to thank the whole Extensions model Firefox uses, but it depended on several elements: one, previous knowledge and familiarity with the Windows XP user folder structure, i.e. knowing that the folder will be under C:\Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\(some obscured number)\extensions. Not that intuitive. Second, the actual .xpi file needed to be extracted into a nice hash numbered folder ({909409b9-2e3b-4682-a5d1-71ca80a76456}, if you really have to know). To find that name, I needed to open the install.rdf in a text editor.
Again, not something that required any amount of sweat on my side. But I really think that too much of computer know-how, as basic as it may be, is needed here to make something like this work

This is probably why I still prefer the Opera model to the Firefox one. It may be that Firefox can be extended to include everything Opera has, and much, much more, but the process is a: unintuitive, b: too "whimsical" and, for a lack of a better term, amateurish. What I mean by this is that when Opera releases an update, it is assured that whatever features were in the previous version will be in the update, and will work. With Firefox, this isn't guaranteed at all. Granted, the community’s work, and the Bazaar model ("Release Early, Release Often") makes it easier for the extension maintainer to keep the extension compatibility with future releases, but again, the guy's working according to his (or her) schedule.

I know this is probably odd coming from someone who already identified himself as a keen supporter of the Open Source concept. So I should make it clear, I'm not saying the Open Source development concept is flawed. I'm referring here solely to the Mozilla extension model, and to the Firefox one specifically. What I would like to see is a fuller, more "robust" release of Firefox, with more features that work "out of the box" and are updated according to the release cycle and guaranteed 100% compatibility with whatever new version is released. This doesn't have to eliminate the current extension model, but simply to expand on it. Have 5-6 "official" extensions that will be integrated into the browser. For example, I find Tabbrowser And SessionSaver to be essential to my work, and I assume most people think the same way. I would also suggest a Mouse Gesture feature, and perhaps one or two others.
Another advantage is that this will make the browser more appealing to new users. I realise this is probably not the best argument to make (depends on who you ask, the Mozilla Foundation guys waving their download numbers, or the GNU/FOSS communities), but Firefox, as it is, is a bit too much "bare-bones" for many people.

It's not such a far-fetched concept, btw. Consider Thunderbird, Firefox's complement email software. In the same vain as Firefox "bare necessities" concept, Thunderbird should've been released without UseNet support (because a: hardly anyone but tech guys use these, and b: if they really want to, there's Google groups), or RSS (a: Firefox has it, b: it's an email app, and RSS are not strictly email related). However, it got both and several other non-necessities. In fact, it might even get a calendar soon. So, are the Firefox guys stricter zealots? Not really.
Firefox has a pop-up blocker (which only exists on MSIE 6 with WinXP Sp2), for example, or an (excellent) integrated html source reader; the integrated search component, both in a page and in search engines, is another good example of something that is hardly bread and butter. And there are several other "under the hood" features that are hardly "bare necessities", but are now considered to be essential to a browser, the same way UseNet support is considered an essential for a mail client. Firefox

There are several points that support the Firefox way of thinking. For starters, stripping the browser from everything but the basics enables a far easier maintenance cycle, as there are fewer features the project developers need to consider, and also shortens the response time to published security flaws. In fact, Firefox's security response time has been as short as 24 hours at one case. Having more features would mean that a security flaw wouldn't be addressed for weeks on time. It also offers choice. Instead of being forced to the developer's way of thinking, the users can choose between several offerings. You don't like what extension A offers? Extension B might appeal to you more. Or even combine C and D to get the best of both worlds (or even combine A and B, for that matter).

At the end of all this debate, one must remember that the whole concept started when the Mozilla team decided to split the famous "suite" into simple components which would co-exists and complement each other. In this view, Opera, which is a full-featured browser, with an email client built-in, is an atrocity, which should be avoided. I just think they went a bit too far.


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