Firefox IE-tab extension

(Second part of an earlier post)

Firefox 2.0 makes a great contender against IE to become the default web browser for Internet scenarios. Full disclosure: this blogger was an Internet Explorer developer in a former lifetime. But it is still not mature enough for enterprise market, which understandably is not glamorous enough for Mozilla foundation to target. This is almost the reverse of the IIS-Apache split: IIS/Sharepoint is very well optimized for corporate intranet use, while Apache continues to dominate the market for Internet facing websites as evidenced by over a decade of Netcraft surveys.

Firefox’s main limitations include handling Kerberos authentication transparently and running ActiveX controls, both of which can be significant for large enterprises using AD and custom line-of-business applications. Firefox does have the equivalent of the Negotiate package but it is not integrated as well: it prompts the user, while IE going through the SSP simply picks up the credentials already registered with the logon session. (This could have been easily fixed by using the SSPI itself, at the cost of portability. The interface is generic and not bound to any articular user experience.) ActiveX may be the greatest challenge because implementing that may  require wasting years of developer time in the depths of COM and OLE.

IE-tab extension provides an easier way out. By clicking on the Firefox icon on the status bar, the extension allows switching to use IE for rendering. That means all IE components come into play, including wininet for network downloads, urlmon for binding, mshtml/Trident for HTML rendering, the Windows javascript engine for active content etc. The only pieces missing are the so-called “chrome” associated with IE: toolbars, IE status bar, window menus. (Right-click inside the page will still bring up the context sensitive menu from Internet Explorer.) No more error messages about needing to view the page in IE. In fact the operation is transparent because websites for the most part can’t peek outside the IE control to see if it is being hosted. Windows Update just works and so does Genuine Advantage validation if the operating system was licensed appropriately.

That means Firefox can for the first time become a full-time IE replacement in all scenarios– but only by hosting IE components inside the Firefox user interface. If that sounds like the embrace-and-extend strategy employed by Microsoft in its battle against Netscape, the irony is well deserved. For all its faults and awful security track record, one of the things IE designers did get right is an architecture that allows easy embedding in other applications. This feature apparently cuts both ways: during the browser wars it helped a great deal by pushing IE into every other application, but in the hands of Firefox developers it can help a competitor  supplant IE as the default browser of choice.


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