A Letter to Foxy Developers

Hello there, FoxiesA look at what makes Mozilla Firefox the most developer friendly browser around, and how you can get the most out of the community-developed Mozilla Firefox.

Mozilla Firefox is by far the most popular browser amongst Web developers. There is a reason for this, and in the following pages we will explore what exactly it is. But to understand why developers love Firefox, we need to understand why a developer loves any browser in the first place.

What is the love about?

The time and effort invested by any Web developer on a Web application (be it a website, or a product) is divided into a number of common activities. These include developing the backend systems like the database, the application logic, transaction management, security and stability. Then comes developing the frontend systems (what we use as consumers) — the user interface and experience.

The backend work is taken care of by server software, and can be scripted in a range of languages like Python, Ruby, PHP and ASP.net. It primarily takes care of all the processing the application will do once the user provides the input (e.g., clicking on a submit button, selecting an item from a drop-down list, and so on).

The frontend stuff is written in HTML, CSS, JavaScript and associated technologies. It is what the user sees and experiences. It is also what the browser will render on the user’s system. It is also the layer where browsers work differently, and that influences how a specific Web application will perform in a specific browser.

Originally, when the Web was a simpler place to live in, there were only two major browsers: Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. Both had their own little ways of handling the frontend, and so websites were usually IE-ready or Navigator-ready. (Do you remember those disclaimers: “Best viewed in <browser> at a resolution of <resolution>”? If not, then please visit any Indian government website to refresh your memory, or press Ctrl+R for a hard refresh of your memory.)

In time, Navigator gave way to Firefox and Opera, and then Safari, Chrome and multitudes of other browsers that joined the party. As the number of browsers, and their treatment of the frontend started varying, the developer’s life became miserable with trying to ensure “cross-browser compatibility”. [Read more on cross-browser compatibility at Wikipedia.]

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) became their champion, when it started formulating standards to ease development hell by making the technology standard. What followed was ECMAScript, DOM, XHTML, XML, and many such standards. These did not entirely remove the need for cross-browser compatibility efforts, but did help minimise it.

Needless to say, even browser developers realised how such standardisation would help their end users, and thus have an impact on their market shares. They rushed to be more standards-compliant. The race was led by Opera and Firefox. When Google released Chrome, it added new paradigms to user experience, by not only adhering to standards but experimenting with and augmenting how people use the Web.

There was only one problem: Microsoft browser — Internet Explorer — was a little stubborn when it came to following standards. It was also a considerable problem, since Microsoft always had the major market share for browsers. With Internet Explorer 9 entering the scene in March 2011, a major leap has been made — finally all browsers follow (mostly) the same set of standards, and thus increase cross-browser compatibility (see what Microsoft has to say about IE6 at the following link: The Internet Explorer 6 Countdown).

With the evolution of these standards, and the browsers that implemented them, the Internet evolved to something more powerful and more social than it ever was. This paved the way to a new set of principles that address how the Internet should grow further. Say hello to the Open Web.

The past was closed. The future, open

As we just saw, the evolution of the Internet was not simple. It started from the dark ages of tools doing as they wished over the Internet, but moved towards a transparent and accessible Web. The drive to make it yet more open, transparent and accessible, needed a name — and that was the Open Web (refer to “What is the Open Web and Why it matters?“).

Mozilla, amongst other browsers, is a champion of the cause, striving towards building an open Web. Opera, Firefox and Chrome are the major front runners of the initiative. The Open Web Foundation governs and defines the Open Web principles, and furthers its cause. The Open Web strives to create a Web where there are no technology lock-ins: an Internet open to all participants and all innovations on the platform. It will be transparent, decentralised and accessible. All modern browsers further the Open Web cause by their adherence to open standards and open formats, and by their commitment to abstract the technological challenges required to interact with the Web.

Half the battle has been won

We started this article with hopes of understanding what makes Firefox a very special browser. We know that like all modern browsers, Firefox adheres to open standards, has a commitment to the Open Web, and strives to make the Web a better place. So what makes Firefox such a sweetheart?

A number of factors actually. Mozilla Firefox arose from the ashes of Netscape Navigator, and has been the first major browser to challenge Microsoft Internet Explorer (after Navigator, that is) and the closed Web. Since then, Firefox has always been committed to taking back the Web, one user at a time.

Firefox is also a completely open source, community-developed browser. Licensed under a tri-licence (MPL, GPL, and LGPL), Firefox has been forked a number of times to create successful derivative browsers like the IceWeasel and the now-discontinued Flock. Since its early days, Firefox has had support for third-party extensions, developed by community members, that add new features to the browser. The Firefox Add-ons are one of the major reasons for the widespread use of the browser, especially in the developer community (we will soon look at some of the most awesome developer add-ons for Firefox, and how they can make your life easier).

Mozilla has an active community around its tools and technologies and the Open Web, and continues to push the Internet forward with community initiatives and platforms such as Mozilla Drumbeat, Mozilla Labs and the ongoing Mozilla Dev Derby.

Mozilla Drumbeat is a project by Mozilla engaged with taking the Web forward from Web developers to regular users, and making it more open and transparent. It is an initiative to foster innovation powered by Web technologies and the Open Web to solve real problems. Mozilla Firefox has been an active advocate for the Open Web, emerging Web standards and compliance to them. Mozilla Markup is a good example of it. And being a powerful, stable and secure browser helps along the way.

List of popular add-ons

Till this point, we have looked at Firefox from a philosophical point, with its intentions to solve real problems. However, this is only half the reason Firefox is an adorable browser. The average Joe user (or any regular, non-tech user, with due respects) neither cares for, nor understands these philosophies and ideologies. They want a fast, stable and secure experience over the Web. Firefox delivers on these counts, much like other modern browsers. However, the add-ons that we talked about earlier help take Firefox a notch forward. They enable you to not only surf the Web with aplomb, but also help you get tons of stuff done on the side, like managing your tasks, using Twitter, getting weather updates, chatting with friends, managing downloads, and so on, right from inside the browser.

We now look at some of the awesome add-ons that make the life of Web developers easier, while adhering to standards and making a more compliant Web application.

Firebug

If you have ever done Web scripting, there are high chances that you have used Firebug to test, prototype and fix your code. With Firebug, you can edit, debug and monitor HTML, CSS and Javascript code on any live Web page.

IE Tab

This add-on embeds Internet Explorer inside a tab in Firefox. It is used for working on the cross-browser compatibility of a Web application, and also helps you surf those Web applications that are “best viewed on Internet Explorer”, without leaving Firefox.

FireFTP

FireFTP is a free, cross-platform FTP/SFTP client built right inside Firefox. If you need to work with multiple documents stored on a remote server, this add-on will help you minimise your effort in fetching the document from the server and re-uploading the changed file.

View Source Chart

This add-on helps you see the source code of a page and inspect its DOM easily. It creates a colour-coded chart of the entire source code, so as to help with visual identification of various sections of the code.

Web Developer Toolbar

The Web Developer add-on adds a toolbar to your Firefox Chrome, which provides you easy access to most functional tools for Web design, including CSS manipulation on a live page, and working with screen resolutions and layouts, amongst others.

User Agent Switcher

This add-on allows you to switch your browser’s user agent. Websites identify your browser with the user agent information, and some sites offer different experiences on the basis of the user agent (data on whether the user is surfing from a desktop, Linux or iPhone).

FireShot

This add-on helps you take a screenshot of a Web page and annotate it. The best use-case for such a tool is for design review and feedback, and also to make interface mock-ups.

MeasureIt

This helps you draw a ruler across your screen to measure dimensions of on-screen elements or check the alignment of your page elements.

Ghostery

Ghostery is a useful add-on that helps detect over 400 tracking codes that a developer might place on a website (like analytics, AdSense, etc) to track your activity on that site. The add-on helps you to better understand the factors that relate to your privacy by exposing how these tracking codes work, what information is being collected, and how these companies plan to use your information. It also gives you the control to block these codes and remain invisible on the Web.

GreaseFire

GreaseFire is a GreaseMonkey client for Firefox. Whenever you visit a website that has a compatible script at Userscripts.org, this add-on will help you use that script to override the website in question, and its default website. A very useful tool for some JavaScript fun.

While there are many more interesting add-ons out there that are available on the Mozilla Firefox Add-ons website that can be used to enhance your surfing experience, I have only shared the 10 that first crossed my mind. Really, the add-ons give you great power to customise your online experience.

In the end, remember that Firefox is not the only good browser out there, or the only browser with add-ons (though definitely the first to have them). Every browser is strong in certain features, and weak in some others. You will end up choosing your browser after considering what works best for you. The only thing that really matters is that you make an informed choice, and that you don’t use a browser for the heck of it.

About Mozilla Firefox

First launched on November 9, 2004, the fiery fox has come a long way in redefining the Internet for people across the globe. The fox has also been very instrumental in opening up the Web, and making it ready for the future.

On August 16, 2011 Mozilla Firefox 6 was released. The sixth major release of the second most used browser in the world saw many updates around HTML 5, overall stability and security. The Firefox community is geared towards its next major release Firefox 7, which should be released before you read this article in print (Release Roadmap for Firefox 7). Firefox 7 comes with better memory management, a better Web console, and similar nifty enhancements.

Help grow Mozilla

The Mozilla community is a dynamic place to be. The community drives the Mozilla Foundation and its initiatives. The same community also develops and deploys all Mozilla projects. Mozilla India is the home of the Mozilla community in India. The community not only comprises of developers, but also end-users and Web aficionados.

There are many ways in which you can be involved with the community; check the community website and contribution areas (refer to this link to know about how you can contribute in the Mozilla India community).

Disclaimer

This article intentionally oversimplifies technical concepts in an attempt to appeal to a general audience. Do not accept any mentioned fact or statement at its face value; please do your research and accept things with a pinch of salt. The author is a fan-boy of Mozilla Firefox, and dreams of everyone in the world using Firefox, but that does not mean Firefox is the only good browser out there.

  • http://twitter.com/keshav4uall Keshav Mishra

    nice post!!!

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