January 07, 2006

Firefox Tipping Point

I think last week marked my personal Firefox tipping point.

Both Firefox and IE are installed on all my computers, but on Windows, IE has been my main browser for normal daily use, and I have used Firefox mainly for testing what the 'minority browsers' see.

But last week a bit flipped in my head. It was not a conscious choice. I found that I was using Firefox rather than IE for ordinary browsing. I actually only noticed this fact when I had to switch to IE to test some HTML rendering.

Why the switch?

Growing Confidence in Firefox, Losing Confidence in IE

I think it might have to do with my growing confidence in the Firefox browser. Version 1.5 is stable and fast. It is not perfect, but it is very very good; many of the 'plugin' problems from version 1.0 are gone. I also think that Firefox starts feeling especially good when compared against the overall accumulation of annoyances in IE. While IE stagnates, there has been a slow and steady series of improvements in Firefox.

Don't get me wrong: I was a member of the IE development team, so IE is my baby and a piece of code that I know and trust. But I know both what's good and what's bad about it. On the good side, it is fast, renders pretty well, supports most of the needed standards, and is far and away the market share leader. On the bad side, it has a set of very quirky rendering bugs and problematic scripting bugs that haven't been getting fixed over time.

I think it is the recent accumulation of these annoyances which has lead my fingers to choose Firefox when I'm not really thinking about it. IE is becoming just a bit too painful to use.

Some recent and not-so-recent annoyances in IE:

  • Rendering bugs. Many websites (including my personal website) that use lots of fancy CSS spacing render badly - sometimes incredibly badly - on IE. These bugs aren't a matter of a 'difference of opinion' on how to interpret the CSS spec. These are bugs like repaint-region bugs where whole sections of the screen go blank or render differently when you force a repaint. It is enormously annoying when, in IE, you need to scroll around to read a page that failed to paint.
  • Javascript bugs. More and more, I am finding that IE hangs, crashes, runs out of memory, or misbehaves due to increasingly fancy use of Javascript on web pages. The worst is when you do something innocuous like bring up the "Find" dialog in IE (itself a clumsy contraption compared to Firefox's interactive 'find'), and it causes the browser to hang. IE implements its own 'Find' dialog using javascript and HTML (it's not unlike the Mozilla XUL approach in many ways), and when your Find dialog hangs, it's a sign that your IE Javascript environment is in trouble. Annoying.
  • The IE cache bugs. Whenever IE's cache fills up, you start getting extremely annoying bugs where IE fails to be able to 'view-source' pages and where it fails to be able to open up downloaded files. The downloaded files are there, of course - IE doesn't fail to download them - but it fails to figure out the right filename for some reason. I am sure it is a straighforward bug, but it is annoying that in all these years, Microsoft hasn't fixed it. There are other bugs that look like they have to do with the interaction of IE and WinInet that are also annoying. For example, if you change your proxy settings in a certain way, IE can get wedged into a terrible mode where you can't change the settings back until you restart the process. And then there is the mime-type sniffing bug that took them 8 years to fix, and the mishanding of gzip file downloads. These are all examples of corporate org boundaries showing in the product. Painful.
  • The final annoyance is the stream of security bugs, particularly the recurring 'insecure image codec' bugs in IE. The bug of the week is the WMF exploit; it's very similar to the JPEG exploit of not long ago, and one wonders if Microsoft really has the necessary cultural religion to preemptively find and fix other similar such bugs. The evidence looks like Microsoft does not. Perhaps using open-source code that is open to community review is what's best for us all.

IE's lack of tabbed browsing and other useful features is annoying too, of course. I like tabbed browsing, interactive find, Google search in the top of the browser (and I wish Firefox allowed me to make the Google box larger than the Address box). But I don't think these are the real reasons my fingers are choosing Firefox over IE; IE has always done well with 'features', and besides it's easy to add things like the Google Toolbar to add-in any missing features you need. The real problem is IE's declining overall quality when compared to Firefox.

Download Firefox here.

Posted by David at January 7, 2006 06:01 AM

There's a resize search box extension so you can make the google box as large as you want.

Posted by: James at January 7, 2006 10:11 AM

It's amazing that among all the IE annoyances you list, you forget the one that's #1 by a far margin for me: spyware and pop-ups.

I couldn't care less about the rendering, cache or insecure image codec.

The simple truth is that at some point, I was bracing myself every single time I launched IE because I never knew what my homepage was going to be or what pop-ups were going to flood my screen. And yes, that was happening despite all the protections I could think of.

Also, how you could do without tabbed browsing for such a long time is beyond me.

Welcome to 2004. I mean, 2006 :-)

Posted by: x at January 7, 2006 12:22 PM

Hi "x" and James. Your mileage may differ, but I have found Google Toolbar to be pretty effective against normal website popups (yes, it's an arms race, but the Toolbar guys seem to do a pretty good job keeping up). Aggressive popup spyware can still be a big problem, I agree. Once your IE gets infected, you're lost. I've been lucky so far and avoided infection.

I agree the lack of tabbed browsing on IE is a disadvantage, but my working style happeens to be involve about (literally) a hundred windows in various apps (lots of shell, editor, and brower windows). I'm a mess, but the Windows task tray does an reasonably good job at organizing all these multiple app windows for me.

When I am using a browser and no other apps - like I do most of the time on my Powerbook - tabs do turn out to be a serious advantage. The browser of choice on OS X for me has always been Firefox.

Posted by: David at January 7, 2006 06:10 PM


I stumbled upon your website whilst trying to find an answer as to why my google search box which has always been next to the address box has disappeared today. I had been using Firefox 1.5 and have been using Firefox for over a year now. I uninstalled it and reinstalled but to no avail. All I got was a search box with a looking glass icon which never happened before! Curiously, all the tabs I had eg. Gmail, Yahoo, Dictionary etc. were all there on the re-installed Firefox 1.5 toolbar. I have uninstalled Firefox 1.5 for the second time.

I am really perplexed and don't know what to do.Can you help? I would be very grateful if you can. Many thanks in advance.


Posted by: Jasmine at January 23, 2006 08:31 AM

how to do find dialog in richtexteditor

Posted by: poornima at January 24, 2006 11:10 PM

I've been searching for the reason that the 'find' dialog hangs. Your statement...

"...the "Find" dialog in IE ... causes the browser to hang."

...is all that I have found. Are there any other resources that describe steps to avoid this bug? I have an AJAX application that runs great, except CTRL+F hangs IE every few times.

Posted by: Bernie at February 10, 2006 08:54 AM


The same thing happened to me. I am confused why it has disappeared, and stays gone after the reinstallation. Must be a registry thing, but wanted to find more documentation first.


Posted by: Brian at July 12, 2006 12:01 AM

Eh, just go to program list, start firefox is safe mode, and should be able to revert to original config.


Posted by: Brian at July 12, 2006 12:07 AM

I came across this post while searching for "Gmail hangs in IE". Interesting points you make David, especially being a member of the original IE team, as you say. It's nice to know that some of the "bugs" that I too have experienced for a long time (like the cache issue) but never bothered to really doing anything about, weren't just ME - it WAS an IE issue.

My most recent beef is that IE doesn't behave nicely when using Gmail, but Firefox does. As for viruses and trojans and spyware and such, I have never had a problem on my home machine using IE, but I am generally careful about what kinds of sites I visit anyway and don't have activex enabled by default.

Posted by: Dave at July 17, 2006 03:32 AM
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