Saturday, March 27, 2010

On leaving Firefox for Chome

If you're vaguely serious about working online, then you almost certainly don't just have Internet Explorer as the only browser on your computer (assuming you have control over these things). Even before Google officially joined the IE6 No More movement many people still wanted an alternative to Microsoft's default browser, and most of those people installed Firefox, which rose from the ashes of Netscape's demise. There was even a funeral for IE6 planned for the 4th March - and in a nice touch Microsoft (apparently) sent a bouquet.
Image by atendesigngroup used under Creative Commons license
Firefox is famously based on Open Source and so you'd think it'd fit in around this blog, which looks at using the similarly Open Source Moodle - and to a greater or lesser extent, it does. This is in part due to the vast constellation of Firefox Add-Ons which are incredibly helpful for all sorts of reasons - the Web Developer add-on is essential in identifying which CSS elements of a Moodle theme can be selected and customised, something like ColorZilla offers all sorts of helpful elements for working with existing pages and designs and Aviary's Talon brings a browser based screen capture tool which will drop the results straight into With Internet Explorer 7 being average at best and Internet Explorer 8's approach to standards meaning that even my County Council's (Microsoft) Outlook Web Access (OWA) server can't be opened unless IE8's "compatibility mode" is active, it looks like Firefox should clean up, especially with the essential IETab add-on which allows selected sites (such as an OWA server) to be displayed in a tab which uses the IE7 engine to display the site As Microsoft Intended (e.g "not in Firefox").
However, any user of Firefox can point to numerous issues associated with relying on the browser. It's an enormous memory hog and - the efforts of add-ons such as MemoryFox/AFOM notwithstanding - can often run sluggishly, though I'm fairly sure that the complex pages of the OWA service don't help the load of running IETab in my case. However, most of these issues are moot, aren't they? After all, most new machines have uber-processors and an excess of RAM, and so should be able to handle anything that Firefox can throw at them, right?
Until you have a netbook, that is. 1 or 2GB of RAM and slower processors make the weight of running Firefox more apparent. So what to do?
Well, the most recent kid on the browser block is Google's Chrome, which has been heavily plugged in the press (and shared large billboards outside this year's BETT Show with David Cameron). Chrome is fast, relatively lightweight browser which is based on the Open Source Chromium project and will be a significant part of Google's forthcoming Chrome Operating System. For many people, the huge billboard and newspaper advertising campaign were a mystery - until the impending EU "browser choice" issue surfaced, and it became clear that people were going to be offered a choice of which browser to use.
So, it's quite possible that a few of our schools might end up using Chrome - but what are the issues with using something like Chrome with Moodle? Most stem from the increasingly old HTMLArea editing tool which is the default in Moodle 1.n versions - in Chrome this simply doesn't display, leaving the (often unsuspecting user) with a plain text box, with no formatting controls:
Moodle HTMLedit area in Chrome
This box will take HTML tags to format the text and content, but that's not an option for most teachers. Contrast this to the standard HTMLarea view in Internet Explorer 7 (similar in Firefox):
Moodle HTMLedit area in IE7
There are two options for this. One is to wait for Moodle 2.0 which uses a new, better (and far more configurable) editing tool TinyMCE3, or alternatively you could follow Julian Ridden's instructions on how to get TinyMCE3 into your current Moodle site. However, if you're using a Moodle server but have no interest (or access) to the code that makes it work, those aren't viable options. I know from various forum postings in the area where we support our Moodle users in Buckinghamshire that some people, particularly on their home machines, are using Chrome and coming up against the issue described above. One way to sort this issue if you have Chrome on Windows is to use Extensions - easy-to-install tweaks to control how Chrome behaves. Here's an overview of what extensions are:

If you have Internet Explorer installed on your machine then you can install the IETab extension for Chrome, which allows you to set rules for which site (e.g. should be rendered in Internet Explorer when loaded in a tab in the browser. When this extension detects you're on a web site in a list you've specified (such as your Moodle, or my Outlook Web Access server), it will use Internet Explorer's page rendered to display that site inside Chrome. This will mean that you get the "normal" editing tools, even if your Moodle site is still using the HTMLArea editor. It's not quite as elegant as the Firefox IETab tool, but it's very useful and on a netbook it's definitely my preferred way to ensure that I can edit Moodle sites as I wish - especially where the alternative is installing Firefox. Hang on, did I really just write that last sentence? How things change...


  1. I haven't completely made the jump yet, but I installed my can't-live-without FF extensions in Chrome, and it appears to be only a matter of time till I say goodbye to my old pal Firefox. Though I love its open-source pedigree, it's still just too slow and bloated.

  2. By the time Chrome catches up on Firefox features, it might well be just as bloated and slow :-)