Build the Web Browser You Want
by Charles Olsen
Firefox is an open source web browser from the Mozilla Foundation. You can download it free from www.firefox.com. It's a great browser, and probably the most commonly-used browser after Internet Explorer. It's also the default web browser in many Linux distributions.
One of the things that makes it a great web browser is the concept of add-ons. The architecture of Firefox allows developers to create programs that can be added in to become part of Firefox and give you additional functionality. Instead of trying to cram every conceivable function into one program -- which would then be a huge, bloated, slow program -- you can add only those functions that you want. You can literally build your own web browser.
To find add-ons, in Firefox you can click the Tools menu and choose Add-ons. Or you can browse to https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox. There you can search by category, name or keyword. When you see an add-on you like, click the Add to Firefox button. (Note that if you add a lot of add-ons, it will almost certainly slow down the performance of Firefox.)
In this article I'm going to talk about my favorite Firefox add-ons. You can hear more discussion of add-ons in mintCast episode 15, at www.mintcast.org/2009/07/mintcast-episode-15-firefox-add-ons/. If there are others I've missed, write to me at charles (dot) olsen (at) pobox (dot) com and let me know. I'll talk about more add-ons in a future article.
1. Adblock Plus
Any time I have a new install of Firefox, I immediately install Adblock Plus. I don't have a problem with web sites displaying ads. But I hate ads that move and distract me while I'm trying to read. Some sites have huge ads that are animated to look as though they are tumbling into the page, covering the text and waiting 10 or 15 seconds before offering a button that will close the ad. There is no justification for that crap. With Adblock Plus, I no longer see those. After you install Adblock, it offers a screen that allows you to select a filter subscription. This provides information that helps Adblock eliminate all animated ads automatically.
There have been many times in the past where I was doing research on the Internet, found a page that was helpful and bookmarked it. But then when I later went back to the page, it was no longer there.
Zotero solves this problem. It gives you a Zotero button at the bottom right of the Firefox screen. Click the button to bring up the Zotero window, in the bottom third of the Firefox window. Now you can click a button that will save a copy of the page. It doesn't matter if the page is later removed from the site -- you have your own copy.
You can store any notes in Zotero. In addition to capturing web pages, you can also type in notes or paste in text from other programs. All text in Zotero -- whether you entered it manually or captured it as a web page -- is searchable. You can also add tags and even attach notes to your notes. Zotero can easily be the repository you use for all of your notes, regardless of their source.
3. Read It Later
If you come across a page that you want to read, but not right now, the Read It Later add-on can help. You could certainly use Zotero for this as well, but this would be a multi-step process where you save the page, then create a tag or note or something that you can search for to tell you that this was saved for future reading.
Read It Later places a small checkmark icon in the right end of your Firefox address bar. When viewing a page that you want to read later, just click the checkmark. The checkmark will turn red.
It will also add a button with a drop-down list in your Firefox toolbar. Click the drop-down to see your reading list, and click any item on the list to open that page. Once you've read it and no longer need it, just click the checkmark again to clear it.
A lot of web sites will break articles up into multiple pages. I don't know why -- maybe this gives them more space to display ads that I'm not seeing anyway, thanks to Adblock Plus -- but in any case I find it really annoying.
AutoPager automatically loads the next page as a continuation of the page you're looking at, so instead of clicking the Next link and waiting for the page to load, you just keep scrolling down to see the next page. It works with a lot of sites, and it's possible to customize it to make it work when you come across an unsupported site. The AutoPager web site has tips and tutorials to help you learn how to create AutoPager rules.
Standard Firefox has a progress bar at the bottom of the screen to show the progress of loading the current web page. Fission removes that progress bar and turns the address bar into a progress bar. As a page is loading, there's a nice visual effect that fills the address bar to show the progress. Fission is a simple little add-on, but I love it.
These are just five of the thousands of add-ons available for Firefox. If you're not already using Firefox, add-ons are a great reason to try it. Just be careful that you don't load too many, or you may find Firefox slowing down.
Feel free to write to me at the address below, and let me know what your favorite add-ons are. If I get enough responses, I'll discuss them in a future article.
Charles Olsen is a writer, trainer and IT professional. He can be reached at charles (dot) olsen (at) pobox (dot) com. See more articles at and listen to the mintCast podcast at www.mintcast.org.
Charles W. Evans is a HAL-PC member and the Magazine’s Reviews Editor who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org