IE8 vs. Firefox: Four Things Firefox Could Learn from IE

It's popular to hate on IE8, and easy to do! But the truth is, Firefox could take a few cues from stodgy old Internet Explorer. From user-friendly features to deployment tools, there are still a few things that IE does better.

Firefox could learn a few things from Internet Explorer 8. Even though it’s popular to hate on IE, and easy to do, Firefox could learn a thing or two from the browser that still holds the majority of the browser market.

Say it isn’t so! What could Firefox possibly have to learn from the most proprietary and stodgy of all the browsers? Internet Explorer has lagged behind Firefox in nearly every area — but not every area. Like it or not, Firefox isn’t perfect, and the Microsoft folks have done one or two things right with Internet Explorer that Firefox could adapt and improve on.

Some of the areas where Firefox could improve, the community has stepped in with add-ons. I’ll mention those where appropriate. However, mainstream users may never get to the point of exploring those options. It’s important to remember that a lot of users don’t reflexively think “maybe there’s an add-on for that.” Instead, they shrug and go back to the product that they know. Even if it’s not desirable to build these features into Firefox (and may not be, in some cases), the Mozilla Project would do well to have a page for switchers that explains the options and tells users where they can get “missing” features.

Web Slices

With IE8, Microsoft introduced Web Slices — basically, a way to grab part of a page that’s interesting and subscribe to it. When that part of the site is updated, IE gives the user a notice via the toolbar. There you can view the information right from the toolbar without having to visit the site.

I’d find this pretty useful for information that can’t be grabbed via an RSS feed. Even though Firefox doesn’t have this functionality by default, it doesn’t mean users have to go without entirely. At least if you’re using an older version of Firefox, you can use the WebChunks add-on developed by Daniel Glazman. The current version of the extension from the Mozilla Add-ons page is only for Firefox 3.0.x and was last updated in September of 2008.

This does bring up another point about suggesting add-ons as viable replacements for features: Sometimes developers don’t update them in a timely fashion. Sometimes they don’t get updated at all. This might be acceptable from the open source mindset that if a feature is important enough, the community will ultimately provide it. It’s not something that will comfort your average consumer, especially the first time a feature breaks with a Firefox update.

Accelerators

Another nifty feature built into IE8 is Accelerators. Basically, this lets the user highlight some text and then perform a quick task on it. This makes it easy to quickly map an address, look words up in the dictionary, copy something to a blog, whatever. You’ll find quite a few Accelerators on the IE Add-ons site. (Makes you wonder where they got that idea, huh?)

Of course, Firefox can do many of the same things. A lot of Firefox add-ons work the same way, it’s just much less obvious to most users where to find them and that Firefox can do the same things.

And IE isn’t likely to stay ahead long at any rate. Assuming Mozilla’s Ubiquity reaches maturity and is integrated with Firefox at some point, it’ll blow the doors off of IE Accelerators.

Fine-grained Privacy and Zones

Compared to other browsers, Firefox’s privacy controls are a bit clunky. Specifically, other browsers allow the user to run “private” browsing sessions in parallel with regular sessions. IE8 has InPrivate Browsing, which lets users run a “private” session in one tab while doing all your normal stuff in other tabs.

As an added bonus, parents (or the local system admin) can shut this feature off — so the feature can be locked down in environments where this isn’t desirable.

Right now, Firefox has Private Browsing, which is big and clunky compared to InPrivate Browsing (even if the name is less clunky). You basically have to run the entire session in this mode, which is fine if you’re using Firefox at a Web kiosk of some kind where you don’t want any sessions saved, but not so hot if you’re doing birthday shopping in one window and just don’t want your significant other to see that you’ve been to the online stores doing their birthday shopping.

IE8 also gives the option of security zones, where sites can be assigned different levels of trust and different levels of access, and whether they’re allowed to run scripts, access files, etc.

To be sure, Microsoft’s implementation is entirely too complicated, with several default zones plus a custom zone, each with their own levels of security. But Mozilla should consider having something simpler, such as a trusted/untrusted zone or an Intranet zone for Firefox.

You can get some of this by using add-ons like NoScript or YesScript to create lists of whitelisted/blacklisted sites that are allowed to run JavaScript. But overall, IE8 has a lot more (perhaps too much) flexibility here and it’d be nice to be able to explicitly tell Firefox that, for example, I want to enable JavaScript for pages on my intraweb domain or that it should go lightly on self-signed certificates for my internal domain.

Enterprise Tools

Hands down, IE8 beats the pants off of Firefox in one area: Enterprise tools. In fact, IE8 beats the pants off of pretty much all the rest of the browsers on the market in this area, because Microsoft is the only vendor so far offering tools to easily manage policies for its browser in a centralized fashion.

Admins can nail down the behavior of IE8 across corporate desktops, allowing or denying access to features, automatically setting defaults, managing user’s search providers — you name it. As a user, none of this sounds terribly desirable. But for organizations that have strict policies about how people use computers, IE8 is the only choice in the pack that satisfies the need to nail down the browser behavior.

There’s some information about deploying Firefox in large organizations, but it mostly seems out of date and certainly not as streamlined as Microsoft’s tools. It’s possible that organizations that really, really want to deploy Firefox could bang something into shape — but that’s not the way most organizations work. Usually they want the best off-the-shelf solution that’s going to work today without a lot of headaches. Sad to say, that’s not Firefox in this case.

As a side note, I’m also curious to see how Mozilla’s new policies around updates are going to score with corporate admins. The team is going to start experimenting with sending feature updates alongside security updates. Typically, this is a no-no in corporate environments. It might be a good idea for consumer software, but for something in an enterprise environment, it poses some headaches when admins want to know exactly what’s hitting machines.

Thus Endeth The Lesson

In most respects, I find Firefox to be a far superior browser to IE. And that’s not only because IE doesn’t run natively on Linux, which is sort of a limiting factor for folks using Linux desktops. In general, Firefox and its ecosystem of add-ons provide a far superior experience than IE. But that’s no reason to get complacent, especially when thinking about enterprise usage.

Would I switch to IE if it were on Linux? Not in a heartbeat. But I might have a tough time convincing others to switch in the absence of some IE8 features, particularly the enterprise tools that aren’t easily matched with add-ons.

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