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Firefox secrets revealed

The lead technical editor of the new book "Firefox Secrets" uncovers what you don't know about the popular open source browser.

The popular Firefox open source Web browser includes several pieces of time-saving functionality that many users don't know about, says Kevin Yank, technical director with technical publishing company SitePoint Pty. Ltd. That's why his firm decided to release the new book Firefox Secrets, by Cheah Chu Yeow. Yank, who served as lead technical editor on the book, reveals some of those lesser-known tidbits -- such as the ability to open a link in a new tab by middle-clicking -- in this interview with

Users should know that Firefox extensions aren't just for programmers.
Kevin Yank,
technical directorSitePoint Pty. Ltd.

What would you say is the most well-kept Firefox secret? Or, put another way, what's the most useful aspect of Firefox that most users don't know about?

Kevin Yank: The one feature I show people over and over is the find-as-you-type search. While viewing any Web page, hit the slash (/) key (or Ctrl-F if you need something easier to remember), then start typing the text you'd like to find. As you type, Firefox will instantly scroll to and highlight the first match in the page. If you type something that can't be found in the page, the box you're typing in will turn red. Once you've found the text you want, you can hit F3 repeatedly to jump through all the matches in the page.

It's a little thing, but it can save you a great deal of time. How much time do you spend squinting at Web pages looking for a particular name, or some other key piece of text? With find-as-you-type, you can jump straight to it with the fewest keystrokes possible.

A close second would be the ability to open a link in a new tab by middle-clicking (usually, this means clicking the scroll wheel on your mouse), or Ctrl-clicking if you don't have a middle mouse button. As you read a page, you can quickly open interesting links in tabs in the background so you can look at them when you're done reading the current page.

What should users know about Firefox extensions? Are there any you would recommend to new users? Are there any that should be avoided?

Yank: Users should know that Firefox extensions aren't just for programmers. There are a great many extensions that enhance everyday Web browsing. Extensions give each user the opportunity to make Firefox work they way they want it to.

Just a few of the must-see extensions that are covered in detail in our book, Firefox Secrets include SessionSaver, which will restore the page(s) you were viewing when you closed Firefox; SyncMarks, which lets you synchronize your bookmarks if you use Firefox on more than one computer; and Adblock, which blocks Web advertisements.

There aren't any particular extensions I'd recommend avoiding, although it's always possible a badly written extension will make Firefox a bit sick. Fortunately, it's easy to deactivate or uninstall unwanted extensions, and in the book we also provide instructions on how to do away with an extension that is somehow preventing Firefox from starting up.

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What are smart keywords and how can they benefit Firefox users? What should folks know about smart keywords?

Yank: Any search you do by typing something into a box on a Web site can be integrated into your Firefox address bar. Just right-click the search field on the site and choose "Add Smart Keyword." Choose a short keyword (e.g., "yp" for a Yellow Pages search), and click OK. Now just type your keyword followed by a search string into the address bar (e.g., "yp plumber") and Firefox will take you to the search results.

How does Firefox allow for cookie and password management? How does its cookie and password management stack up against MS Office?

Yank: Firefox lets you view and manage all of the stored cookies and passwords within its Options dialog. You can delete individual items, or clear them all as you see fit. Contrast this with Internet Explorer, which stores its cookies in a folder with other temporary Internet files that you must wade through using the Explorer, and which only lets you clear all stored passwords.

Microsoft Office doesn't have cookie and password management.

I once heard an analyst say that MS Explorer and Firefox are about equally as secure. He said MS Explorer has many more users than Firefox, and therefore more bugs are reported. He said as Firefox gains more users, we'll probably hear about more and more bugs. Do you agree with him? Is Firefox really more secure than MS Explorer? Why or why not?

Yank: That argument doesn't carry any weight if you think it through and compare it with history. Consider that hackers have an easier job of it with Firefox -- the browser is open source, so any security vulnerabilities are right out there in the public eye. Any hacker can examine the code that makes up the browser to find holes to take advantage of. Nevertheless, hackers continue to find more and bigger holes in Internet Explorer, the code of which is locked away in a Microsoft vault.

Over time, this kind of scrutiny will only make Firefox into a more secure product. There is also historical precedent to consider: The open source Apache Web server has long been more popular than Microsoft's Internet Information Services product, and yet hackers consistently find more vulnerabilities in IIS. Since Apache runs far more Web sites, I'm sure they'd prefer to find more holes in that server, but they don't. Actively maintained open source software -- when subject to the scrutiny of those who would attack -- is intrinsically more secure.

What's the most important piece of advice you have for IT professionals who want to migrate their companies from MS Explorer to Firefox?

Yank: Hurry up.

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