May 17, 2004

Why I chose Firefox over Epiphany for my GNOME desktop

Author: Alex Combas

After all the recent announcements concerning cooperation and integration between the Mozilla Foundation and the GNOME Foundation, I decided to compare GNOME's Ephiphany Web browser to Mozilla's Firefox. I installed Epiphany 1.0.6 and Firefox 0.8 on a Debian "Sarge" GNU/Linux system. After about a week, I came away feeling that Firefox is unquestionably the better browser.

Firefox isn't perfect. In fact, some of the problems I have with Firefox are exactly the kinds of things I like about Epiphany. Epiphany is completely written in GNOME's native toolkit, which makes Epiphany look and feel like a true desktop component. Firefox still looks a little off in that regard. For example, the menu system for Firefox blends in only as long as you're not actually using it; once you start to navigate the menu system you can immediately see differences between it and a native GNOME menu -- the Firefox menu title depresses instead of highlights when it is clicked, and the menu list items do not share the native theme colors by default.

I found another consistency issue with Firefox's Print and Save As dialog boxes, which use the standard Mozilla dialogs intead of the native GNOME dialogs and so appear at odds with the rest of the desktop.

In short, Firefox could be much improved by following the GNOME Human Interface Guidelines, which were written expressly for the purpose of helping developers create applications that look and feel at home on the GNOME desktop landscape. The toolkit and consistency issues need to be fixed if Firefox is ever to be considered a first-class GNOME component.

Still, Firefox comes with professional technical support from the Mozilla Foundation. Epiphany, while based on the same Gecko rendering engine that Firefox uses, lacks this support, or any kind of commercial support for that matter. Furthermore, I recently visited the Mozillazine on-line user support forum for the first time and was absolutely awestruck at how many threads, posts, and users it has. I am neither a forum-head nor a newbie as far as forums go but with over 39,000 registered users and over 500,000 articles, Mozillazine offers the highest volume I have ever seen at any forum. That's not just a community, it's a movement!

There are a lot of other nice things about Firefox, such as its availability for Windows machines. That goes a long way to helping users make a switch to open source by introducing them to open applications gradually and in an environment they feel comfortable with.

Firefox offers the ability to provide separate browser themes, so if users choose to make Firefox stand out from the rest of the desktop they can do so. That won't happen with Epiphany because it is designed to be tied to the desktop theme at all times.

Epiphany looks at home on any modern GNOME desktop. It embodies several really innovative ideas, such as how it handles bookmarks, but Epiphany is a much younger browser than Firefox, which is largely based on the Mozilla browser, which in turn was based on the classic Netscape browser. Epiphany has several adolescent bugs, resulting in low stability and areas of poor usability. By contrast, Firefox has been incredibly stable.

The things that tend to bother me about Epiphany are generally the little inconveniences. For example, after opening a new empty browser tab by typing Ctrl-T one has to reach over and grab the mouse and click on the location bar, because Epiphany does not automatically give the new tab's location bar focus.

I also noticed some outright bugs. For example, when using Yahoo! Mail, after opening up the online contact list and selecting someone as an email recipient, thus closing the contact list, Epiphany seemed to automatically jump into Search mode (or something similar) and I was unable to type the body of the email until I opened the search dialog (Ctrl-F) and clicked Close.

Its going to take a lot of time and effort to bring Epiphany to the stability and usability that characterize Firefox. This situation begs the question, why not just put all that effort and skill into the already better browser?

I do not feel that Firefox is ready yet to become the default GNOME browser, but I do feel that such a move is inevitable and something to look forward to. Firefox is a great browser. Mozilla is a great community. I look forward to the day when GNOME will have a well-integrated, stable, highly usable, cross-platform, world-class Web browser that has commercial technical support.

Alex Combas has been a Linux enthusiast since 1997.
He just opened his first restaurant.

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