Firing up the web

Firefox 3.0 is now out of its cage, but what does this new version bring to the battle of the browsers?

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By  Derek Francis Published  July 1, 2008

For the 19% of you that use Firefox, the launch of Firefox 3.0 on 17th June just might have been penciled in your diary.

After all, Firefox 2 recorded 1.6 million downloads in its first 24 hours, and Mozilla was keen to break that record. After a clever pre-release save the date-type campaign, Firefox 3.0 took no prisoners as it scored a supremely impressive 8.3 million downloads on launch day. It's now in the process of getting Guinness World Records to verify that figure.

While the most downloads came from the US, with 2.6 million, Iran saw the eighth-highest number of downloads by country, with 250,000 in the first day. This was the Middle East's only representative on the top ten. More interestingly, it amounted to more than China's contribution of 173,000, and almost matched the UK's total of 295,000. Considering the UK's high internet penetration and developed high-speed broadband market, this is surprising.

A couple of weeks on, and Firefox 3.0 is growing far and wide, notching up about 20 million downloads at the time of writing. Industry metrics company, Net Applications, says the open-source browser has gained market share while Internet Explorer and Safari lost out. While Microsoft should be concerned about its eroding market share, the team at IE still had the grace to continue with tradition and send the boys at Mozilla a congratulatory cake for the launch. Firefox CEO John Lilly was reportedly so pleased, he made sure everyone in the office saw it before letting them eat it. (It's also widely known that the last cake Mozilla received from Microsoft, for Firefox 2.0, is still kept in a freezer).

In the early days of the Internet, Microsoft saw off its greatest competitor in the browser space in the form of Netscape Navigator. Packed with features, hailed for its functionality and design, Internet Explorer didn't seem to have a chance against this heavyweight. Yet somehow it prevailed, and IE's supremacy was unrivalled for many years.

Then the Mozilla Foundation boarded the open-source bandwagon and unveiled Firefox. One of the most notable things Firefox did for the way we browse the Internet is introduce tabbed browsing. Couple with a neat downloads manager, web-surfing was simplified and made more secure.

When it comes to Firefox 3.0, there are some interesting developments. Firstly, Firefox is a much smaller file size to download - just 7 MB, compared to IE7's 14.7 MB and Safari for Windows, which weighs in at a whopping 18.6 MB. It has a much lighter feel to the program, loading up quicker than its rivals and it seems to be less of a burden on the system's memory. As web-surfing becomes ever-more common, bookmarking is vital. Along with RSS feeds, there is now a bookmarking icon that makes the whole process a one-click affair. This isn't revolutionary, but it sure beats IE's process of clicking on Favourites>Add To Favourites, and completing a form. Web regulars will be pleased as punch.

Another minor change - but still managing to whip up quite a storm online - is the new address bar. As well as the auto-complete tool, when you type in a website you've already visited the bar drops down to all the pages in that site you've been to. It's like an address bar that also lists the browsing history. I think it's great, but it's this feature that's arguably been the greatest target of scorn.

On the left of the address bar, a neat little icon tells you whether or not the site you are visiting is verified. Try it out: visit www.bbc.co.uk and click on the BBC icon that appears on the left of the HTTP address. By opening up the ‘More Information', it's a shortcut to the Security tab in the Settings menu. This will hopefully make website security more noticeable to less net-savvy users and should build awareness as well as streamlining the process. One cool new feature is the full zoom. How many times have you tried to zoom into a webpage, but only been able to enlarge the text, while the pictures remain tiny? Firefox has put that right.

But by far the greatest enhancement we can report is the faster loading times for a multitude of webpages. The first time I started up Firefox 3.0 on my personal laptop, it was appreciably quicker than IE7, or Safari for that matter. After conducting a quick (but by no means definitive) test, the results seemed pretty conclusive. Using a 4 MB connection in the ITP office, we firstly recorded the page loading times (in seconds) for a number of popular websites, with an empty cache (1). Then we tried each site again and logged the quicker loading times (2).

  Firefox 3.0 Internet Explorer 7 Safari for Windows
  (1) (2) (1) (2) (1) (2)
www.bbc.co.uk 10.1s 4.2s 22s 6.9s 7.6s 6.9s
www.youtube.com 7.4s 4.7s 28.7s 6.0s 7.7s 5.3s
www.ebay.com 7.4s 1.7s 7.8s 2.0s 7.6s 2.6s
www.msn.com 9.3s 5.4s 9.4s 4.6s 6.1s 6.5s
www.google.com 1.8s 1.0s 2.0s 1.8s 1.8s 1.2s


In fact, the only website in which IE7 loaded quicker than Firefox 3.0 was MSN.com. Whether this was a coincidence or not, we're not sure. Obviously our internet connection is variable at best and these results shouldn't be taken too seriously. (IE7 taking 28.7s to load YouTube appears to be just one example of the variation in connection quality). But the results seem to validate our own feelings: Firefox 3.0 is quicker, and therefore better, than its rivals.

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