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Firefox secure enough for business browsing, but don't dump IE yet

Firefox isn't just for home browsing anymore. According to Firefox expert and book author John Hedtke, the open source browser is ready for business. But those considering a change probably shouldn't uninstall Microsoft Internet Explorer just yet.

Some businesses haven't jumped on the Firefox bandwagon because they think the Mozilla Foundation's browser is just for home users. But they're missing a ride to safer and more secure browsing, according to John Hedtke, co-author of Firefox & Thunderbird Garage, which is being released by Prentice Hall PTR in mid-April.

Hedtke recently spoke to about why he feels that Firefox fits the business mold. He also described new Firefox extensions like MouseGestures and explained why those considering a transition might not want to dump Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) just yet. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:

Firefox doesn't support ActiveX or VBScript, so any Web site that uses either of these won't run correctly when viewed with Firefox.
John Hedtke
co-author<i>Firefox & Thunderbird Garage</i>

First off, is Firefox a viable browser for businesses? If not, why not? If so, what types of businesses are best suited for it?

John Hedtke: I think Firefox is an excellent browser for both business and personal use. The primary thing that both classes of users are interested in is security. Several recent studies show that 75 to 80% of users are concerned about Internet security, and with good reason: They have spyware, virus, or other security problems. They want a browser that is secure, that doesn't allow Web sites to load spyware and viruses on their computers, and that doesn't provide an open door to their data.

Firefox is very compact and installation is largely automatic, so a corporate rollout is not difficult. I know of one Fortune 500 company that is currently evaluating switching their 44,000 world-wide employees to Firefox. Many smaller companies are already Firefox shops.

The installation package is very small (five megabyte), and there are relatively few options that need to be set as part of the installation. One of the best parts of the installation process is that Firefox will import favorites, bookmarks, settings, display preferences, and other information from other browsers automatically.

In a nutshell, why do you believe Firefox is more secure than IE?

Hedtke: Firefox doesn't support VBScript and ActiveX, which are frequently used to exploit security holes in IE. Firefox also gives you complete control over Web cookies. And, because Firefox is not an integral part of Windows, viruses and trojan horses do not gain automatic access to many parts of Windows on Windows computers.

Would Firefox require add-ons to be useful in a business IT environment that already includes Linux?

Hedtke: I believe that Firefox works fine as is and doesn't require add-ons. However, there are a number of extensions - small modules that augment existing features or add new feature sets - that are incredibly desirable and that have a place in any business installation. Some of my favorites are:

  • Adblock, which filters ad images from Web pages
  • MouseGestures, which lets me perform a number of common commands (back, forward, open new tab, etc.) by right-clicking and moving the mouse pointer
  • Bandwidth Tester, a quick bandwidth testing utility
  • Tabbrowser Preferences, which extends the built-in tabbed browsing features
  • Download Manager Tweak, which extends the built-in download manager features


Want to know more about Firefox's security capabilities? Read part two of this interview with author John Hedtke.

None of these are essential to running Firefox in most environments, but these - and the 600-700 other Firefox extensions - can be highly desirable for increasing productivity.

In the book, you advise Firefox users to keep IE around in order get antivirus updates and access some Web sites. Why?

Hedtke: I use Firefox almost exclusively, but there are still a few sites that I have to access that require me to use Internet Explorer. Firefox doesn't support ActiveX or VBScript, so any Web site that uses either of these won't run correctly when viewed with Firefox. Some of the Web sites that still require IE are sites for online accounting programs, a few travel sites, a major weight-watching Web site, and, of course, the Microsoft Web site.

While I understand the desire to run Microsoft-free computers, IE is still a requirement at least for some Web sites. Fortunately, many Web sites are being modified so that they are no longer browser-specific to reflect both the steady rise in Firefox usage as well as the potential risk of using ActiveX or VBScript. More importantly, if you're running a Windows computer, removing IE can in some cases destabilize the system if it's simply yanked out. It's best to have IE available for those increasingly rare cases where it's required and not use it unless you absolutely need to.

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