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The release of Firefox 1.0 is a big, big deal. I’ll admit that for we Mac users, it’s not quite as huge a deal as it is for the oppressed Windows masses who once again have a legitimate alternative to the ad-infested corpse of Internet Explorer. But even for those of us in the tribe of Safari, competition is a good thing. And Firefox is a legitimate competitor to Safari.

Just as Safari has been built by Apple upon a foundation of open-source web browser technology, so too has Firefox — but Firefox is an entirely open-source project, part of the Mozilla Foundation (an organization formed from the remnants of the browser-building parts of Netscape). Fortunately for Mac users, the builders of Firefox didn’t forget to support the Mac. That means that Firefox can offer Mac users a number of features that Safari simply doesn’t offer.

Safari is what it is, a product carefully constructed by Apple to provide a great browsing experience. And it’s a really good browser. But Firefox has the flexibility that Safari lacks: for example, although Firefox has a search field in its toolbar just like Safari, the Firefox search field can search Google, Yahoo, Amazon.com, or any of dozens other search engines (developers can write little Firefox plug-ins to add support for any search engine under the sun).

Then there are the toolbars. If you’re a Mac-only user, you may have never heard about the Google toolbar. It’s an add-on for the Windows version of Internet Explorer that provides pop-up blocking, quick access to Google searching, and several other features. The Google toolbar doesn’t exist for Firefox yet, although if it does it will mostly likely work on the Mac as well as on Windows. But in the meantime, there are numerous other third-party toolbars that work with Firefox, and if you take a shine to even one of them, it might be enough to make you switch from Safari.

For a taste of the Google toolbar experience, try the A9 Toolbar. It lets you search the web directly via A9, an Amazon.com-owned site that uses Google’s own search engines. A9 even goes further than Google, by letting you organize web-based bookmarks, track your search and browsing history, and more.

If you build Web pages for a living, then consider Chris Pederick’s Web Developer Extension. I first heard about this tool from Rob Griffiths’ Mac OS X Hints site. Pederick’s software adds a toolbar full of features that are invaluable while you’re building web pages. You can edit style sheets, validate documents, resize to common window widths, and more, all from within Firefox. It’s really cool.

In terms of general browsing, I’ve found Firefox to be roughly as fast as Safari. It does seem a bit sluggish when opening new windows, and its interface doesn’t feel quite Mac native (especially when it comes time to draw HTML form elements, which come across with a definite Windows vibe). And for every moment when I get frustrated by something Firefox does in an un-Mac-like way, there’s a moment of giddy discovery when I find a cool feature that Apple hasn’t implemented yet, like Firefox’s Find window (when you press command-F in Safari, a floating Find box opens; in Firefox, a horizontal toolbar appears at the bottom of the window with numerous search options).

In short, if you’ve ever wondered if there might be something out there that’s better than Safari, there’s never been a better time to try out Firefox. And did I mention that it’s free, free, free? You can always go back to Safari if you don’t like it.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I discussed Safari alternatives without mentioning the Omni Group’s $30 OmniWeb 5. It does just about everything Safari does, and has about a zillion bonus features that make it an excellent browser for true Web power users. There’s a free demo, so you can see what the hubbub’s about before plopping down your 30 clams.

The Mac, a Safari-only platform? Not anymore, my friends.

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