Mozilla Firefox, the new browser in town, offers most of the advantages of Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) with none of the (security) disadvantages. It also offers some unique new functionality all its own, including strong customization features that enable the browser to perform new tasks. And with Firefox starting to steal significant market share from IE—some studies suggest it owns as much as 10 percent of the browser market now—it might finally be time to ditch IE and settle on a more secure and stable alternative. Here's what you need to know about Mozilla Firefox.

A Checkered Past
Firefox has its roots in the old Mozilla source code, which Netscape open-sourced back in 1998. Since then, the Mozilla Foundation has overseen a complete overhaul of the Netscape source code and has been busy issuing new versions of its browser suite, known simply as the Mozilla Suite. However, because the Mozilla Suite combines numerous applications—including the Navigator Web browser, Mail & Newsgroups, and Composer—into one executable, some consider it too top-heavy and monolithic. For that reason, a splinter group of the Mozilla Foundation separated the source code for the Web browser, which later became Firefox, from the rest of the suite.

Smaller, lighter, and faster than the full Mozilla Suite, Firefox was designed as a standalone Web browser and quickly surpassed whatever successes its more full-featured predecessor enjoyed, with more than 30 million downloads as I write this. Firefox—along with the standalone email and newsgroup client known as Thunderbird—has been so successful, in fact, that the Mozilla Foundation will likely discontinue development of the suite soon and instead focus solely on the standalone clients. A third client, called Sunbird, provides calendaring and tasks functionality.

Better Security, Performance, and Features
Firefox fans laud the product's simple interface, speedy performance, and unique feature set as its main draws when compared with IE. But Firefox's best feature may be that it doesn't support ActiveX technologies, providing users with a more stable and secure experience. As a result, Firefox tends to be much less prone to spyware-type attacks than is IE.

Although Firefox wasn't the first browser to come with a tabbed browsing interface, it has obviously popularized that user experience. With tabbed browsing, users can elect to open new browser windows as subwindows within the same parent window of the browser, cutting down on window clutter and providing a convenient way to group related windows. Users can also save a group of tabbed subwindows as a single bookmark. Other interesting Firefox features include an embedded and configurable search bar, a highly configurable UI with support for skins, better support for Web standards than IE, and integrated pop-up blocking.

Not (Yet) Enterprise Ready
If Firefox is so good, why isn't everyone using it? The biggest reason is that, unlike IE—which is included with Windows—Firefox isn't easily deployed or managed from a central location. Some Firefox patches, such as Firefox 1.0.1, require a full reinstall and can't easily be applied to an existing installation. Finally, for many corporations that rely on IE-based Web applications, the fact that Firefox doesn't support the ActiveX technologies that make that functionality possible means that one of Firefox's greatest strengths becomes, ironically, a weakness. For many companies, then, Firefox is simply a nonstarter.

Recommendations
As an avid Firefox fan, it's hard for me to admit that this product still has a ways to go before most midsized and large businesses can break the chains of IE and move to a safer alternative. However, there's no reason that individuals can't adopt Firefox and use IE only when necessary. You'll likely be surprised by how well Firefox performs and displays most Web pages.

In the end, Firefox's successes in 2005 will likely come through grass-roots word of mouth and not from corporate adoptions. But if the Mozilla Foundation can figure out an easier way to deploy this excellent product, it will have a winner on its hands.