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  • The Great Firefox Bug Controversy

    November 20th, 2007

    Without mentioning the names of the usual offenders, I often wonder if some tech pundits exist solely to find bad news, whatever it might be, the better to increase the hit count, and regardless of whether the bad tidings are accurate or not.

    Take Firefox, the cross-platform browser that’s reinvigorated the tarnished reputation of the Mozilla organization in the wake of Microsoft’s trouncing defeat of the original Netscape years ago. These days Firefox and its derivatives, including Camino for Mac OS X and a reborn Navigator, hold over 15% of the browser market. In some countries, it’s more popular than Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. And Apple’s Safari isn’t doing to badly either.

    The newest version of Firefox, 3.0, is also months late. The first public beta, for example, came out Monday, and already there were complaints about possible lingering bugs by people who never actually used the application on any platform. It all seems to stem from a statement on the part of a Mozilla official that some 700 bugs remained in the latest version of Firefox, but only about 20% of them would be closed, or fixed, before release.

    Now you can look at that statement two ways, and one is that Firefox will be one buggy mess. But this isn’t necessarily true. If anything, Mozilla has been pretty good about fixing crashing issues, and they’ve regularly delivered needed security updates. So where did this perception come from?

    Well, having 540 bugs remaining in any application as complicated as a Web browser is probably not unusual. I don’t pretend to know how many remain in Internet Explorer or even Safari for that matter, but it all depends on the type and severity of that bug.

    Or even if it’s a bug at all.

    If the issue is a feature that may not be fully implemented, or a cosmetic or design component that might be a little off, you might classify it as a bug all right, but it’s not something that must be fixed before the product is released. So such things get lower priority.

    Now when it comes to something that might cause the application, or worse, the computer itself, to crash, that’s another story entirely, and that defect would (or should) be fixed right away. The same is true for something that could corrupt your data.

    Another highly significant issue is security. If some backdoor can be exploited by an online criminal, you expect the developers to work overtime to deal with the matter.

    So where does that leave Mozilla and its statement about leaving all those open bugs in Firefox 3?

    Well, technically they call them “blockers,” and they point out that it’s normal to take the less significant problems and set them aside until the major troubles are resolved. Then, as with all developers, they peck away at the matters that may not impact many people, and if they do, not seriously.

    That’s a far cry from shipping a buggy product.

    Speaking of which, the first beta of Firefox 3 does show a fair amount of promise, with a load of new features that, for the sake of space and not duplicating what you can already get elsewhere, I’ll only summarize a few highlights.

    In order of importance, there are a number of enhancements that address security, such as built-in malware and Web forgery protection, and one-click site info. The latter feature displays critical information about a site when you click its favicon (the little icon adjacent to the site’s address).

    There’s also more powerful password management, making it easier to save passwords for sites to which you have to login. In addition, file downloading can now be resumed, the spell checker is integrated with the one provided in Mac OS X, and bookmark and history organization has been improved.

    The most important enhancement at all is the new Gecko 1.9 engine, which supposedly improves graphics, text rendering, and printing of a site’s contents.

    Since it is the first beta, I wasn’t expecting perfection, and I did find it a little ragged as far as site rendering performance is concerned. But I didn’t encounter any crashes — at least not yet — and basic compatibility with my usual spate of online watering holes seemed pretty decent for the most part, though there are a few glitches. I was even able to edit this article in WordPress without any untoward effects.

    The final version of Firefox 3 will be available for the Mac OS, Linux and Windows some time in 2008. But you can enjoy it now if you like to test the cutting-edge. And please don’t fret about those exaggerated bug reports.

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