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BarCampMilwaukee5 Lightning Talk: Firefox 4

At BarCampMilwaukee5 we did Lightning Talk where you get 5 minutes to talk about a subject. (5 minutes only! We time it and when the alarm goes off, you’re done!) I talked about Mozilla Firefox 4, which is/was in beta at the time.

My main point was too let people know that Firefox 4 is much improved over previous versions of Firefox. I know a lot of people who have switched to other browsers (mainly Chrome) due to speed issues, and while speed is important, I don’t think it’s the most important thing.

My suggestion to people was to completely wipe their existing Firefox profile (which could easily be 5 years old by now) and install the Firefox 4 beta, and see how fast it was. Don’t install any add-ons, just start browsing fresh, and see what happens. Keep an eye one arewefastyet.com too, and see how those numbers and lines are looking.

I also touched on Mozilla Drumbeat, Game On, Firefox Sync, and Firefox Home. I probably left out a lot of things I would have liked to mention, but I did this unprepared. Also, you can actually say a lot in 5 minutes.

Special thanks to Chris Larkee for filming the Lightning Talks. You can find them all at YouTube, and Chris said they are all available under a Creative Commons license, but since YouTube has no concept of such things, you’ll just have to take our word for it. You can also find this video at blip.tv

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Firefox 4 is Fast

I’ve been running the Firefox 4 betas, and I’ve been trying to keep an eye on speed, as that seems to be one of the main reasons cited for switching to Google Chrome by Firefox users I talked to.

Firefox

Now, don’t get me wrong, Chrome is fast, that much is true, but I think what a lot of people forget about is the cruft. For many users, it could be a few years since they’ve done a fresh install of Firefox. I mean fresh as in “starting with a new profile” so that all your old preferences, add-ons, plug-ins, bookmarks, and other bits weren’t there.

Right now if you download Google Chrome for the first time, and launch it, there is no cruft. It launches fast. If you’ve been upgrading Firefox over the years and not starting fresh with a new profile… well, there’s cruft.

Here’s what I did, and you can try it at home. Create a new user account (if you’re running Mac OS X, just log into the “Guest Account” that wipes itself after every logout) and launch the Firefox 4 beta. For fun launch Google Chome as well. Both will be cruft-free as they won’t have any previous preferences/profile to worry about, and will be starting fresh.

In my tests, Firefox 4 launched pretty damn fast. If Chrome launches faster, it’s probably by such a small amount that most people could never tell.

Now jump back and forth between Firefox and Chrome and load various pages. Again, don’t use any magical timers, just experience it, and see if you think they are pretty close. They look pretty close to me.

As I’ve mentioned, speed isn’t everything, but it’s nice to see the Mozilla folks stepping up their game and realizing that speed is important to a lot of people. I’ve also read some comments about finding ways to “cleanse” old profile data, to help the folks who have been using the same Firefox profile for years and years, hoping for a bit better performance.

Disclaimer: This is not scientific! I did not run any benchmarks, I didn’t test Javascript engines, or anything too crazy or stressful, I just compared the experience of launching/browsing using completely fresh installs of (the latest beta of) Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome. I’d love to hear some comments from a Chrome convert willing to do the same tests.

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Web414 Persona for Firefox

Personas are the easiest way to theme Firefox. Got Firefox? Visit getpersonas.com and it’ll get you started.

And for you Web414 fans, you can install the Web414 Persona.

If you wanna go “Persona Crazy” you can install Personas Plus for easy access to over 60,000 personas.

Web414 Persona

Here’s what the Web414 Persona looks like in the Firefox 4 beta. (Don’t worry, it also works in Firefox 3.6.x as well.)

web414persontop

Here’s a close-up showing the logo treatment as it appears in the header. (It looks better in Firefox 4 than Firefox 3.)

Building this personal took almost no time… the only delay was waiting for approval, which took about a day. (While I was waiting I investigated hosting the persona on my own server, but there’s a lot of Javascript hackery to make that happen that I didn’t feel like getting into.)

I may build more personas if I get time, or maybe I’ll dig into Enhanced Personas. :)

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Mozilla Crash Reports

The Mozilla folks make it pretty easy to send them crash reports… In fact, I think it was Netscape that first implemented a way for the browser to easily submit a report when something went wrong and your browser crashed.

I did find some instructions for reporting a crash bug in Chrome, and of course Safari can also send crash reports. Hopefully this makes for better software in the future.

In digging into all the crash reporting, I found that Mozilla actually publishes the results they get. Head on over to their crash-stats site and take a look.

Mozilla Crash Reporting

You can do custom queries for a few different Mozilla products, so in this screen shot I chose the current stable version of Firefox running on Mac OS X. Hmmm, looks like the Flash Player caused the most crashes…

I couldn’t find if Google or Apple has anything like this, but if they don’t, they should think about it… There’s some great data in there.

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Cheap Thrills, Speed Kills…

I’m told I need to make some arguments to convince people that speed is not everything. I’ll attempt to do that here.

Should I even mention a time when almost all browsers were named after cars? No? OK, good… Let’s talk about cars then. When choosing a car do you typically go to the car dealer, and ask for the fastest car they have? That sounds like a great idea, I mean, you’re in a hurry, you have a need for speed, and you can’t drive 55, so you want the fastest engine they’ve got. It makes sense.

Now that you’ve got your really fast car, you might also wonder how safe it is. Will it protect you from harm? What if the locks don’t work, and it’s not very secure, and people can just open the doors, and rummage through all the stuff you leave in your car… your shopping receipts, the playlist on your iPod, you know, stuff you might think is sort of personal, and you’re not OK with sharing.

Apache / IIS

Many years ago (I know, I start a lot of stories like that) there was a sort of competition between web server software, and this competition often looked at the speed of which a server could serve pages. That made sense to a lot of people, because, you know, you want your pages served fast. The competitors were Microsoft IIS and Apache’s HTTP Server. In many speed tests, IIS was the winner. If you based everything on speed, IIS would have been the clear choice. Now, that would have meant you ran your web serving platform on Windows, because that’s the only place IIS ran. You also would have most likely restricted your code to ASP or maybe ColdFusion, but you probably would not have even considered PHP or Perl, or any of those “weird open source” languages. It sort of made sense that IIS would be really fast on Windows, as both products were developed by Microsoft, and if anyone could make then work together, and run fast, it would be Microsoft. I mean, I’m not suggesting that Microsoft would use undocumented API calls and what not in the development of IIS, right? Right. I’m sure the Apache Software Foundation wanted to put out a fast web server, but they were also very concerned with conforming to the standards and specifications published by the W3C and the IETF and other organizations that were working towards building the web, and they were also putting out web server software that ran on many different platforms, some of which I’d bet you may not have even heard of. There were also a number of great modules you could add to Apache to make it do great things. I worked with Apache and IIS, and I definitely preferred Apache.

Oh, did I mention Apache’s HTTP Server was also open source? While Microsoft could do whatever they wanted to with IIS, including kill it off at any point, or completely re-write it, or force you to pay exorbitant fees for it, Apache was open source. If you didn’t like where it was headed, you were free to take the code and do your own thing. Or hire someone to do it. Open source is like that… it sort of serves as an insurance policy for the future.

The Apache Software Foundation has been a non-profit organization since 1999, and I believe the web has flourished and grown in no small part because of that. I’m not saying that Microsoft IIS or lighttpd don’t have a place in the world, as they surely do, as do other choices, but I’m grateful for the work the Apache folks have done, as they’ve made it possible for myself and others to do so much over the years to help move the web to where it is today.

But I know.. you all want the fastest damn browser your money can buy… regardless of the other features which may matter today, or in the future.

See Also: Firefox, it’s not me… it’s you! and Mozilla Firefox vs. the World.