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Mozilla Firebird 0.71

Mozilla Foundation

Mozilla is in trouble financially.

What is left of the organisation once known as Mosaic is not much. After being bought out by AOL, and then being a part of AOL/Time-Warner, Mozilla, the open-source free browser based on the Gecko engine, went from a somewhat flaky enterprise into the people responsible for making the best of breed browser on the Internet.

Once the victim of Bill Gates's evil 'browser war', and falling far behind Internet Explorer in features and performance, Mozilla is today the undisputed leader, partly because of the Gecko engine, and partly because Bill Gates could no longer give a damn, being more interested in the current cash cow, DRM.

Bill crushed Mosaic/Netscape, and he successfully kept Sun out of the PC market, so he's happy. He was never interested in providing a good browser anyway. He only wanted more money.

In the meantime, Mozilla marched on, getting more and more standards-compliant, and of course relying on its incomparable Gecko rendering engine. All the Mozilla browsers use this engine, from the standard Mozilla release, through Camino for the Mac, and Firebird. Thus all are roughly equivalent when it comes to performance and speed.

And as far as speed goes, no matter what Steve Jobs wants to be able to say, Safari is not and never has been the fastest browser on the net - Mozilla is. It might take longer to load the heavy Gecko engine, but once it's in memory, it leaves the others far behind. The current Mozilla releases are the fastest browsers the world has ever seen.

This speed is due to many factors, such as good coding and ingenious ideas, of which the 'surf ahead' idea has got to be one of the best. While you are innocently idling at a website, Mozilla is looking ahead - and preparing to render all the pages your current page is linked to. When you finally move on, odds are Mozilla is already there waiting for you.

Work has now stopped on the main Mozilla project, having been now superseded by the Firebird project. Firebird is to be a lightweight and superfast browser available for almost all platforms, including the Mac. It's progressed to version .71 for the Mac and .7 for the other platforms, the Mac version needing a bug fix update.

As Mozilla has a total of ten programmers all told today, and as these programmers are frenetically looking for funding so they can stay on, it's a wonder anything gets done in any of the Mozilla projects, but it does.

The Mac user is going to be very ambivalent towards Firebird, if indeed it attracts enough to get a trial run. On the one hand, it is, like all Mozilla browsers, extremely fast and extremely accurate, but on the other hand, it has strains of the deplorable Windows XP in it, at least as far as GUI design goes, and this is not going to be popular.

Also, Firebird does not use Apple's Cocoa directly, but simulates it, ostensibly for the purpose of having as much cross-platform compatibility as is possible.

But this does not provide a positive aesthetic experience for the Mac user. Controls and widgets and buttons are in certain cases remarkably similar to their authentic Cocoa counterparts, but almost everything in the Firebird GUI comes up ultimately as cosmetically flawed.

There are a number of direct GUI design mistakes: The 'Customize Toolbar' window comes up not as a sheet, but as a dialog window which effectively hides the toolbar on the main window, making glyph management cumbersome.

Emptying the caches is lugubrious: first you have to click the button 'Clear All', whereupon the sheet disappears and another one slides in to take its place - here you have to confirm you want all your caches gutted. When you do, this second sheet disappears and the first one returns, and you have to click 'OK' to dismiss it. A lot of clicking.

And - 'lean and mean'? Hardly, at least not compared to Camino, which has been written explicitly for the Mac. Firebird takes a whole 5MB more disk space than Camino.

Most of all the Windows XP styled glyphs are going to irritate the sensible Mac user (and users on other platforms as well). The widgets used for buttons and comboboxes and so forth are a curious combination of nondescript Linux GUI design and Windows, and they are even less appealing.

Above all, in the world of the Mac it not only has to perform well, it has to look good too - if the latter were not important, a lot of Mac users would still be hanging out in Windows and Linux.

At the end of the day, Firebird is nothing for the Mac user, as Camino is already available, is everything Firebird is and more, because it has a decent GUI, and also because it's achieved a stability Firebird will need a little more time to reach.

And even when it does reach that level, it's still going to look and feel like Windows XP, to which Mac users are likely to say 'no thanks'.

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