I am a long-time Firefox user. Firefox has its roots in the now defunct Netscape Web browser, a popular alternative to Microsoft’s Internet Explorer back in the day. So I perked up when I learned that the Mozilla organization that produces the free Firefox browser has just released an iOS version that is optimized for your iPhone and iPad. It’s pretty good. But Firefox for iOS is as much a promise as a reality, at least for now. Certain features that you have come to expect in iOS browsers are only hinted at in Firefox.
Two examples are tabs and synchronization. Most modern browsers, including the computer versions of Firefox, have a tab bar at the top. You load several Web sites at one time, then click the tab containing the one you want to view. Simple and elegant. In the iOS version of Firefox each tab is the width of your screen. You touch a button on the upper right to go to the ‘tab screen’ which shows thumbnails of each open tab. This certainly looks elegant, but it defies rule #2 Dan’s Three Rules of Software Development:
- If a computer can do something, the computer should do it.
- Reduce clicks. If you can do it in one click, don’t do it in two clicks.
- Use the software you write on a daily basis. When it annoys you, fix it so it won’t annoy your users.
In other words, having all the tabs on a bar at the top of the browser means one click to see the different loaded Web sites. Having to click a button to see thumbnails, and then potentially having to scroll down if you have a lot or sites loaded is a minimum of a two-click task.The computer versions of Firefox can sync bookmarks. That way you have all your stuff anywhere. For some reason a stunted version of this feature is in the iOS version. You can sync the bookmarks on your PC or Mac to iOS Firefox. But you can’t add bookmarks in the iOS versions and have them sync back to your computer. So it’s not so much a synchronization as just copying your computer bookmarks one-way to your phone.It also appears that all video formats don’t work exactly right on iOS Firefox. I like the Tonight Show except for one thing: it’s on too late. So I like to view the video clips at nbc.com the day after they air on TV. Now, granted, NBC has a strange setup on their Web site that doesn’t always work smoothly. But I can’t for the life of me get the Tonight Show videos to play in Firefox on my iPad. On my phone the videos do play. I couldn’t get one of them to stop playing, but others worked as expected. It’s the same Firefox on both, so I know the program can do it. There is no problem playing these videos on other browsers on the iPad, including Safari and Dolphin, even with NBC’s weirdness. Firefox does much better with Youtube videos, and plays videos I host on one of my own Web sites just fine. Again, these quirks give the impression of a browser that was released before it was entirely finished.Grousing aside, iOS Firefox is attractive, and focus on the sites you view, not browser controls. When you scroll up the tab that includes the address field, back button, etc. disappears so all you see is the site. That is especially great on a phone, with its limited screen real estate. Scroll up or touch the top of the screen and it reappears.The price of that simplicity is another breach of Rule #2. You have to click the tab button to see the little cog icon that controls settings, or a mask icon that enables or disables private browsing.Tap the address bar once or click the tab button and you see the so-called ‘Awesome Screen’. This screen shows icons of most visited sites, plus icons to view bookmarks, your browsing history, your open tabs on the cloud (tabs open in Firefox on your other devices), and your ‘reading List’ of saved pages.
To me calling it an Awesome Page is a bit of hyperbole. I would rather put some of my very favorite favorites on it, instead of recently visited sites. You can delete sites from the page, except for the two that point to the Mozilla Project (which produces Firefox) and the Firefox help page. The Bookmarks page is equally ‘almost OK’. You can delete bookmarks by swiping them from right to left and clicking the Delete button, similar to deleting things in almost any iOS app. But you can’t rearrange them, or put them in categorized folders like you can on the computer versions of Firefox. In fairness, I can’t find a way to do this in iOS9’s Safari either, though Dolphin does it.
The first version using the name Firefox appeared in 2004, and it has pretty much been my browser of choice since then. It is cross-platform — you can get it for Windows and you can get it for Mac, among others. When I got an iPhone four years ago I was disappointed there wasn’t an iOS version. While I use Safari for some tasks, I have been using the Dolphin browser for many others on iOS devices. I have been moderately happy with Dolphin. But evidently Dolphin is a more able browser on Android devices, and I have been frustrated by some of the things it can’t do on iOS, as well as a rather unproductive technical support encounter I had with the makers. So I am anxious to replace Dolphin with Firefox now that I can.
So I really want Firefox for iOS to be awesome. At the moment it’s good. Over the years the Mozilla team has shown they really care about their browser, and it has gotten better. That’s what I wish for in the iOS version. Good today. Awesome tomorrow.