Column published on Saturday December 15th 2007 in The Guardian
“Why you should download a Seamonkey – The Guardian headline
We looked last week at changing Themes via Firefox’s Tools-Add-Ons menu. Themes are all very well, but it is extensions that offer the real powerhouse possibilities
Last week I showed how easy it was to change your browser to Firefox, a customisable, personalisable (mmm, such attractive words) web browser that offers much more control over your web life than the standard, bundled applications Internet Explorer (IE) and Safari, for Windows and Mac platforms respectively.
A little history might interest you: Firefox is the work of the Mozilla Foundation, which was founded years ago (in digital time) as part of an attempt to “kill” the first universally successful web browser, Mosaic (Mozilla is a portmanteau word derived from “Mosaic Killer”). The Mozilla design led to Netscape, the most popular browser of the late 90s, which was in turn killed by IE, the browser Microsoft cobbled together from bits of – you’ve guessed it – Mosaic source code. This internecine cannibalism led to all kinds of lawsuits and the ultimate demise of Netscape. Mozilla itself stayed alive, however, and three years ago came up with Firefox, the Third Way. There are others: Opera is carving out a niche on hand-held and gaming platforms, while various Gecko-based browsers follow the Firefox protocols. I don’t dismiss them, but we are concentrating here on the big alternative.
We looked last week at changing Themes via Firefox’s Tools-Add-Ons menu. (If you missed it, take a look at http://www.stephenfry.com/?p=29 Themes are all very well, but it is extensions that offer the real powerhouse possibilities. Some allow extraordinary control over tabbing, searching and selection, others remodel the toolbars with special features and form-fillers (“Groowe” and iMacros are personal favourites). Still others incorporate the features of popular bookmark sites (I use deli.cio.us and Stumbleupon, both of which have many official and unofficial Firefox extensions), while yet others allow you to modify the way you use your chosen social network or picture site. Dive in and search. Go to Tools-Add-ons, click the jigsaw puzzle icon, and the Get Extensions link at the bottom right of the small window.
One question I’m often asked by friends is, “How do I download videos off YouTube, so I can access them directly on my PC, media player or phone?” The answer is to use one of several Firefox extensions devised exactly for that purpose. YouTube tries every now and again to disable these by altering its technical specifications, which is silly – serious copyright thieves will always be able to hijack video from an online site; it’s only the harmless average user who is hampered. YT should take note of the excellent Videojug site (videojug.com), which allows complete, simple and intuitive video downloading in three formats. If you do decide to use a Firefox extension for YouTube movie acquisition (and naturally you would want to do so only with legal, public domain material), you will find the movie is downloaded as a flash file, or .flv – there are plenty of utilities that then allow you to convert to a format with which your computer or hand-held device is happy.
Extensions are immensely powerful: they are free, typically take up no more than 200 or so kilobytes of memory and are constantly being updated and improved. What’s more, they are multiplatform – it doesn’t matter whether you’re running Windows, Mac or Linux, the same extensions will function; they also work in other gecko browsers such as Flock, Camino, K-Meleon, IceWeasel, etc. Or at least they should do, if properly scripted by their authors.
If you like this new kind of browsing experience, you might want to download the whole Mozilla suite, which goes under the endearing name of Seamonkey. Or you can do it in bits, adding the stand-alone apps Thunderbird and Sunbird for mail and calendars.
By using Firefox and other Mozilla elements, you are opening up your browsing experience, supporting Open Source as a principle and putting yourself on the path to understanding further those byways of the web of which the big corporations seem often to prefer you to remain in ignorance. It’s off-road browsing in a vehicle pimped to the max. What could be more fun?
© Stephen Fry 2007