Thursday, March 31, 2005

McFarlane: Firefox Hacks—Getting Even More Out of the Safer Browser


With nine chapters and 10-17 "hacks" per chapter, Nigel McFarlane's Firefox Hacks provides 100 numbered tips on using this popular secure browser, for users with IT experience who are Firefox beginners, as well as those who are already open-source contributors. Since each numbered item contains much more than a single suggestion for using the Mozilla Firefox browser effectively, the book is a treasure trove for tweaking your Web interface.

Firefox Basics starts the book, with ten hacks that address using the browser itself. Language in this chapter occasionally descends into jargon. (Hack #2, for example, advises, "You can't start kiosk mode from the command line. You can start it with a call from a secure web page...) As the Hack numbers rise, so does the amount of programming required to implement the hacks! My favorite in this chapter was Hack #4, detailing "how to find stuff"—like the password you entered for a new web site three days ago.

Security covers more than just avoiding spyware and spam—in fact, many users turn to Firefox because it offers freedom from these banes of Internet Explorer access. In this chapter, McFarlane details using Firefox in Intranet single-server environments, making it automatically discover Web proxy settings, and my personal favorite, Hack #13: Stop All Secret Network Activity. Firefox may send information across the net without asking, but you can configure it to stop secret updates of itself, stop secret submissions of data (like cookie responses), and even stop the background downloading of data to inactive tab windows. Another hack tells the IT tech how to configure Firefox for safe use by neophytes.

Installation of Firefox is simplicity itself, as I discovered when I "left IE forever" on Valentine's Day this year. My love for this browser was immediately increased, though, by Hack #30, which increases Firefox's support for fonts specified by the CSS of the web pages you visit. IT managers will probably prefer items that detail how to roll-out Firefox enterprise-wide, and how to set up servers the support bonus Firefox content types.

Web Surfing Enhancements: I went to this section first, looking for the skinny on Web Search engines. One of the great strengths of Firefox is its ability to let you search on a word or a phrase from any of a menu of sites, using open-source "Mycroft" Search plug-ins. The menu that appears in the upper right corner is just the tip of the iceberg, though. Hack #36 showed me the URL to download a sweet extension called Conquery that lets me drop any highlighted word or phrase into any Search engine plug-in installed on my system. Hack #41 builds on the earlier exploration of how these Search plug-ins work by showing me how to create my own plug-in.

Power Tools for Web Developers and Power XML for Web Pages are sections I will come back to, after I have thoroughly explored the more-basic concepts. Most enticing of the Power Tools, though, is the DOM Inspector, a standard feature of Firefox. This goody lets you directly view HTML and XML code, making it simple to decipher a target web page's CSS styling. There's also Hack #55, an omnibus hack that covers "portability" debugging across JavaScript, PHP, Perl and JSP.

Hack the Chrome Ugly and Hack the Chrome Cleanly both cover modifying the Firefox installation files called the chrome. Some users ("people with no time and no patience") will hack ugly, modifying these files using quick-and-dirty methods. Others will hack cleanly, studying packages and plug-ins, and installing them properly. Either way, modifying and enhancing the Firefox browser is the "first step... to learning Mozilla application development."

My favorite chrome-hacking tip comes from the "clean-hack" chapter. Hack #90 details how to reuse bits of packages once you understand what they do—and for that, I loved Hack #84 and Hack #85, which offered a guide to understanding Firefox chrome packages and extensions. (Hack #76, from the ugly-hack section, was also valuable—it shows how to use the DOM Inspector to "spy on" chrome packages.)

Work More Closely with Firefox is the final chapter. The standard Firefox interface used by folks who've downloaded the free browser to their PCs is not the only variant; there is Firefox for Macintosh, custom variants devised for enterprises, and GNOME for Unix/Linux systems. You can run multiple variants on a single desktop (unlike IE). This chapter introduces the developer to the community of Mozilla programmers. Hack #98, my favorite in this chapter, introduces Bugzilla, the online Firefox bug database, and coaches you through the process of reading, understanding, and even submitting your own bug reports. However note:
you can lose your Bugzilla privileges if you spam or otherwise culture-jam the conversation.
I waited with bated breath for this book to finally be available. Now that it's arrived, I can't think what I ever did without it. If you yearn to take Firefox to the next level, here is your ticket!

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Blogger samraat said...

4/03/2010 7:10 AM  

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