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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.

Comments on "IE8 vs. Firefox: Four Things Firefox Could Learn from IE"

sstory

I personally hate IE8. I despise installing it because of all of the questions it asks you. At least you can download a tool to make a custom install to solve the problem. I hate the UI of IE also. Firefox is 100 times better in this area. Keep it simple and don\’t change things unless really necessary and beneficial to all. MS Changes them just to change them. People don\’t like relearning things they are already comfortable with for no good reason.

Firefox:
It would be nice in the Enterprise environment to have a way to see the users cache info easily without going to each machine. I am not aware of a way. Of course a proxy that would probably eliminate the need, but still it would be nice for smaller places that don\’t do a proxy.

I really love the way Firefox did tabs and the bookmark bar and the overall simplicity of the U/I that isn\’t drastically changed.

As for add-ons. They all say something like if you don\’t know the user don\’t use this add-on. That is a deterrent for me. Perhaps the developers of Firefox should run through some of the code of the popular ones and certify that it is clean (no malware) and safe to use….of course perhaps instead of that, they just add it to Firefox–who knows.

Reply
pworlton

Good article. The only thing I\’d take issue with is a statement from your intro:

\”Firefox could learn a thing or two from the browser that still holds the majority of the browser market.\”

According to W3Schools, this is not the case. Even if you combine the market share from the 3 major versions of I.E. (v.6 to v.8), they do not add up to the Firefox market share. Here\’s the link: http://www.w3schools.com/browsers/browsers_stats.asp

The one thing I would add that nobody ever seems to notice or mention is that there is a definite visual difference between the two browsers. I.E. does some smoothing and filling of fonts which makes it much more visually appealing as a reader. This article, for example, is much more readable in I.E.

:)

Reply
gstrock

Microsoft has no qualms about helping Communist China censor the internet so the Chinese government can suppress it\’s people.

Why should anyone be using Microsoft products or even looking at them to learn something?

Reply
craigrouse87

In reference to pworlton\’s post, the w3schools stats are only stats for their own website. Seeing as most of the people who visit the site are interested in web development, and therefore have some kind of basic knowledge of what a browser even is, it should be no surprise that they are not using IE, in the same way that most of the people reading this article are probably not using Windows. IMHO, the only good thing going for IE is ease of deployment for network admins, otherwise it is a horribly slow and clunky browser. One of the best things going for Firefox is the fact that it is so highly customisable, and features like web slices are definitely something I could do without, and would much rather have the option to install as an add-on, rather than have it installed by default. I might add that I have recently converted to Google Chrome from Firefox, and find it far superior in terms of speed, memory usage and stability to any other browser I have used, with Opera coming a very close second. I think Mozilla have started to take their users for granted of late, and the browser stats on wikipedia (bit.ly/pRsB) show that they simply cannot afford to rest on their laurels with Chrome making such a significant dent in the market.

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biztux

Four of the five things which firefox could learn from IE8 are quite frankly useless to most users and to say the word Enterprise and Microsoft in the same paragraph is … \”Oxymoron\” is the closest descriptor I can find for this …

Seriously, fewer people are using Windows than ever before, more people buy a MAC with OSX or switch to Linux because each month because of the huge cost savings. Windows 7 just hasn\’t stemmed the tide either … As for deployment, Firefox is easier to deploy than IE8 hands down, it has fewer dependencies and it works on ALL of the popular OSes used on the desktop today, not just on $M.

Mostly home users, and gamers will most likely stay with Windows, but Enterprises have mostly already made the switch to Linux in the DC (Data Center) for their servers and many are currently trialing OSX or Linux on the desktop. IMHO as a Senior Solutions, Data and Infrastructure Architect, Both Linux and OSX offer vastly better value for Enterprise clients than does Microsoft Windows in it\’s many incarnations.

Also IE is by far the highest maintenance product ever let loose on mankind, Look at the number of bugfixes, patches and other windows updates which \”Fix\” vulnerabilities in IE code.

It is about time that Microsoft went back to designing software, testing it thoroughly prior to releasing it to Beta testers and not releasing it to the public until most of the bugs have been fixed…

Something $M could learn from Firefox!

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rnortimer

gstrock said:
Microsoft has no qualms about helping Communist China censor the internet so the Chinese government can suppress it\’s people.

Why should anyone be using Microsoft products or even looking at them to learn something?

Even where not using a product is the moral thing to do ignoring it and not trying to learn from it is always the wrong thing to do, especially if you want to provide an effective countermeasure.

As for history:- Hitler\’s Germany killed millions but the second it was over we were busy employing them to take us to the moon.

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jzb

@pworlton – You raise an interesting point, with the visual difference. Honestly? I don\’t use IE or Windows often enough to see the difference. My use of IE/Windows is pretty much limited to the occasional work in a VM to test things out. That may be one reason you don\’t see it raised often.

As for the market stats, as craigrouse87 said: w3schools isn\’t the only game in town for stats. Most stats I\’ve seen indicate that IE still holds the lead.

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jzb

@biztux \”to say the word Enterprise and Microsoft in the same paragraph is … \”Oxymoron\” is the closest descriptor I can find for this\”

Seriously? Are you going to try to claim that most enterprise desktops are not running Windows? I\’d *love* to see the stats you\’re looking at. :-)

Reply
glroman

pworlton said:

According to W3Schools, this is not the case. Even if you combine the market share from the 3 major versions of I.E. (v.6 to v.8), they do not add up to the Firefox market share.

Yeah, FF is popular amongst web developers. IE still holds ~80% market share amongst users

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biztux

@jzb
I am not claiming that Windows is not currently the most widely used desktop OS within Enterprises, however, with the huge uptake of Virtualised Desktops running on top of either VMware and Citrix platforms (both of which have a Linux core…).

The uptake of both Windows Vista and Windows 7 as Enterprise desktop OSes has been very poor as many companies are investigating alternative, less expensive and more stable Desktop solutions.

It is a fact that millions of former Windows users are now running either OSX or Linux on Enterprise desktops, some running Windows as a legacy platform for a few applications in a VM via VirtualBox, VMware, Parallels or QEMU.

I believe the days of Windows dominance are rapidly drawing to an end, OSX would kill windows outright if Apple would produce it to run on standard PCs with a wider range of hardware and minor OS changes so that it worked out of the box on standard PC BIOSes.

Most real Enterprise applications are OS agnostic and will happily run on Linux, OSX, Windows, BSD or Solaris desktops: A vast array of Enterprise applications from IBM, Oracle and many others for example and hundreds of high(er) quality multi-platform applications like Firefox which also run on everything including Windows.

Business people are becoming way too smart to swallow the Microsoft FUD pills anymore, when it comes to the bottom line in business, money drives it all, M$ will have to change or die out.

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biztux

Postscript:
I currently contract at a large Australian State Government Site where there is a mix of around 60% Windows (decreasing weekly), 25% OSX (Increasing weekly and not running MS Office), and 15% Linux (also growing weekly)… The SOE used to call for Windows XP Professional & Microsoft Office, XP is no longer available and so educated research began…

Open Office V3.1 has proven to up to the task for Document Processing and many of the traditional internal documentation roles have moved to \”Confluence\” a Wiki/DMS from Atlassian.com in Sydney Australia.

Open Solutions on Open Platforms – the choice is clear.

The cost of deploying, and supporting Linux desktops is proving to be much lower than that of supporting Windows desktops, OSX is also lower cost to support and both cost way less than the Microsoft alternative…

Reply
belikin

While I do agree with the article I have to say that for the enterprise use of a browser we use Frontmotion Firefox and it has served us well for the past 4 years +. We are running it in a call-center and it offers more locking down/customization than IE does.

Check it out here: http://www.frontmotion.com/Firefox/fmfirefox.htm

They also offer many other packages for the enterprise.

We currently run over half of our call-center on Linux and have no major issues as of yet… Yes we do have the occasional hiccups here and there but nothing that can\’t be tweaked and ironed out when they arise.

Now I just wished more service providers would start adapting to making their web products work for other browsers instead of just IE.

Reply
markslay

While I do agree with the article I have to say that for the enterprise use of a browser we use Frontmotion Firefox and it has served us well for the past 4 years +. We are running it in a call-center and it offers more locking down/customization than IE does.

Check it out here: http://www.frontmotion.com/Firefox/hsafmfirefox.htm

They also offer many other packages for the enterprise.

Thats a great little app, thanks for posting. Although no browser is perfect, firefox certainly (IMO) is the most robust, and, if you look at google analytics, you will see that it is by far the most used, so its worth deploying throughout the workplace, not to mention developing for.
I do a lot of freelance developing, and I haven’t heard anyone mention IE for years, it seems like. Even google chrome is showing higher usage in my google analytics.

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Internet Explorer 8 is the last version of Internet Explorer to be supported on Windows XP and Windows Server 2003; the next version, Internet Explorer 9, is supported only on Windows Vista, Windows Server 2008 R2, and Windows 7 operating systems.`’^,

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