Please, Firefox – don’t drop the ball

by Mathew on February 13, 2006 · 12 comments

Richard MacManus of Read/Write Web, who also blogs for ZDNet, put into words something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile now, which is that Firefox might be losing its lead in the browser game. Obviously, I’m not talking about a market-share lead, since Internet Exploder Explorer still has about 90 per cent of the browser market. I mean the cool, cutting-edge kind of lead that has helped make Firefox the browser of choice for geeks and opinion leaders in the geek-o-sphere.

Don’t get me wrong, Firefox is still cool. And even though Internet Explorer 7 has a built-in RSS reader and tabs, two of the things that many people love about the ‘fox, it still isn’t as cool. But it’s getting there. For one thing, it’s fast. And for another thing, it doesn’t suffer from what I (and others such as Nik Cubrilovic of Omnidrive) think is one of the big weaknesses of Firefox – one that has been around since at least 1.2 or earlier – and that is the gigantic memory leak that sucks up RAM every time you open a tab, until pretty soon your browser either crashes or your entire system slows down like your processor just got swapped for a 486.

Before anyone suggests that I try the various fixes that are out there, I have. I’ve tried the one where you open the “about:config” page and edit the minimize function, and I’ve tried editing the memory usage settings. And I know that extensions can cause problems with leaks as well – but then extensions are also one of the main things that makes Firefox so special, since you can add all kinds of functionality. But I feel a whole lot less special about it when my system crashes and I have to restart it.

One of the things that makes what Richard writes so compelling is that we’ve seen this movie before. Netscape was also a kick-ass browser with all kinds of features, but it lost its way and became a bug-riddled pile of bloatware. And yes, I know that a certain software company used anti-competitive tactics to help defeat it – but Netscape also made it easier for Microsoft to win by shooting itself in the foot (and many other more crucial body parts) and I would hate to see Firefox do the same.

Update: I tried disabling the tab-caching feature in Firefox, based on this recent post by Firefox developer Ben Goodger, and it seems to have done the trick. After a day of opening up tabs – I think I have 23 open at the moment, which is about average – my system would normally be so sluggish I would have to quit and restart Firefox, which by this point would have chewed up as much as 350 megabytes of RAM. And now? Total RAM usage is about 90 megabytes and the system (an older Windows 2000 Dell desktop I have at work) is running fine.

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  • Marc

    I agree that Firefox uses a lot of RAM – that’s my main complaint.

    I like tabs, but I think the real strength of Firefox are the plugins, that it’s cross-platform, and that it’s more secure.

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  • Mathew

    I agree, Marc — and the extensions and cross-platform aspect are definitely still a plus. But those damn memory leaks are a pain. Admittedly, I probably don’t need to have 45 tabs open all the time, but I just can’t help it.

  • Mark Evans

    to be honest, i didn’t realize opening multiple tabs sucked up so much memory. it may explain why my laptop slows to a crawl given i like to have 10 tabs opening at the same time. then again, it may be the laptop!

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  • Kent Newsome

    While the memory leak issues are a problem, I agree with Marc that extensions are what give FF the insurmountable lead over IE in the feature race. But I’m glad IE is covering some ground because a two horse race is better for the consumers.

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  • John

    The last comment demonstrates why open source software will never become widely accepted and why MS still have no serious threat. Most users just want things to work, no messing, no going into setting and tweaking. If firefox cannot do this then people will scurry back to IE. Calling the users stupid is a bit like a mechanic calling someone stupid for not understanding the working of the internal combustion engine.

    Since the last few updates firefox crashes after a few hours use and refuses to be killed, I have to reboot. Personally I will use the most reliable browser, and right now that is IE warts and all.

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