Michael Horowitz

The rust around Firefox

April 30, 2012 12:36 AM EDT

I was a huge fan of Firefox for a very long time -- but times change, and I now prefer and recommend Google's Chrome. Firefox is, frankly, getting rusty.

What brought this up was an old Windows XP computer that had been collecting dust for months. When I brushed it off today, I tried to update Firefox version 3.6.25 to the latest and greatest edition, but things did not go well.

The first sign of trouble was that a "Check for Updates" installed version 11 rather than the latest version, 12.

From version 11, the update to 12 was uneventful. But the first page displayed by the freshly installed v12 was mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/3.6.25/whatsnew/, which told me that the currently installed version of Firefox "is out of date" and prompted me to download version 12.

The worst was yet to come.

Checking on Java at my javatester.org site turned up the fact that it wasn't installed. Fine, except for the prompt from Firefox which wanted to install Java Version 6 Update 29.

Yikes. Update 29 is old and buggy, a lesson 820,000 Mac users recently learned the hard way.

Java Version 6 Update 30 for Windows and Linux was released December 13, 2011 (give or take). Update 31 was released February 14th of this year and Update 32 was released a few days ago. Someone is asleep at the Java switch.

Java has been a security risk for a long time and, in response to that, Chrome warns the user before running any Java applets. Word to the wise and all that. Firefox, sadly, does not do this.

There's also a minor Java annoyance. Firefox responds to the version test at javatester.org with the message that Java is disabled, when, in fact, it is not installed. Neither Chrome nor Internet Explorer make this mistake.

Firefox 12 also changes the user interface, compared to version 3. The most obvious change is the orange Firefox rectangle in the upper left corner that replaces the menu bar.

Firefoxs new user interface

Restoring the menu bar (which replaces the orange box) is easy enough for a techie (Options -> Menu bar), but non-techies might get confused. In contrast, the Chrome user interface has barely changed from day one.

For whatever reason, this particular copy of Firefox 12 had another annoyance: there was no plus sign to the right of the rightmost tab for opening a new tab. I didn't try to figure out why -- perhaps it was because Firefox 3 had a new tab button on the toolbar. I've seen this in other instances of Firefox, too.

The way Firefox handles the Bookmarks Toolbar, either always or never visible, seems archaic compared to Chrome, which shows the bookmarks bar only on newly opened tabs. Don't like that? Then Chrome can show the bookmarks all the time, too. I prefer the Chrome default because screens are now shorter than they used to be, making vertical real estate all the more valuable.

The particular computer I was working on is used by a non-techie who benefits from having links to their few favorite websites immediately visible. But the always-visible Bookmarks Toolbar, combined with the new Firefox look, especially with a visible menu bar, wastes a lot of vertical real estate.

Firefox 12 vertical chrome

And it just seems ugly (granted, a matter of opinion).

Who among Firefox users isn't getting sick and tired of upgrades breaking extensions? I've never experienced that with Chrome.

Firefox 12 finally offers stealth self-updates -- but it's only implemented on Windows, and the jury is still out on how well it works. For example, Chrome keeps two versions of itself. This lets it download and install a new version while the user is running the old version. We'll have to see if Firefox is that well designed.

Steve Gibson of SpinRite and the Security Now podcast has his own pet peeve: A dedicated Firefox user, he clung to version 3, ignoring versions 4 through 11 until, finally, version 12 fixed a long-standing problem with Firefox hogging ram.

Finally, I noticed that the old computer also had a portable copy of Firefox version 3.5.18. It could not update itself at all; not to 3.6, not to 11, not to anything. It repeatedly hung trying to phone home.

So sad.


Update April 30, 2012: A day after writing this, I stumbled onto another problem with Firefox 12 having to do with Flash.

As a Windows user, I long ago decided to restrict my Flash usage to Chrome. As a result, Firefox often complains that Flash needs to be installed. But if you try to install the Flash Player plugin, it fails (tested on Windows 7 64 bit and XP 32 bit).

And, its a good thing it fails because Firefox 12 tries to install Flash version 11.1.102.62 which was released Feb. 15th. Since then, Adobe released vesion 11.1.102.63 in the middle of March, version 11.2.202.228 at the end of March and version  11.2.202.233 around the middle of April.

So, just as someone at Mozilla is asleep at the Java switch, so too are they ignoring the care and feeding of Flash.

To me, it says a lot when a browser can't deal well with either Flash or Java.  

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FYI: One third of Firefox users vulnerable to known flaws; IE and Chrome continue to gain share by Peter Bright of Ars Technica (May 1, 2012) includes this: "Mozilla, meanwhile, continues to see Firefox's market share drop."