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– Ponderings & code by Drew McLellan –

– Live from The Internets since 2003 –

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Firefox and The IEAK

28 July 2004

A couple of years ago the team I was working on was given the task of creating an ISP sign-up CD for a client. Although they’re a bit of a dated concept these days, sign-up CDs are those annoying discs that people like AOL poke through your letterbox, and others jam in your hand as you’re walking through the mall. These CDs include software for creating a new account with the ISP, and then configuring your computer to use that account. Significantly, they nearly always contain a customised and branded web browser. Nine times out of, well, nine, this is Internet Explorer.

When I was working on this project (I won’t say who the client was, but you’ve heard of them) we too needed to build a branded version of IE. At the time Microsoft provided a free tool called the Internet Explorer Administration Kit (IEAK), which was basically just a Windows-style wizard. Each step of the wizard asked a few simple questions – the name to appear in the title bar, which custom graphics to use, what default favorites (bookmarks) to include – all that sort of thing. Clicking ‘finish’ spat out a brand new build of IE, installer and all. It was that simple. The availability and ease of use meant that anyone who fancied the idea could put out their own version of IE to their customers and mandate its use – as many ISPs did.

Of course, one of the great things about open source projects like those run by Mozilla is that there are no restrictions on what you can change should you decide to make a custom build. As all the source is freely available, you are not restricted to the set of options offered by a tool like the IEAK – you can basically do what the hell you like, compile it and distribute.

But how many people actually can?

I’ve taken a look at doing this myself for an upcoming project. There’s a comprehensive list of instructions on building Mozilla browsers from source, which is great. But look at the work involved. To build a copy of Firefox for Windows I’m into downloading (or purchasing?) hundreds of megabytes of developer software from Microsoft, installing a bunch of open source tools, setting a heap of environmental variables, getting the source from CVS – and we’re not even looking at customisation yet. For that I’m into learning my way around the source and configuration files. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this situation – it’s typical and necessary. However, it’s not conducive to being able to knock out a quick customised version of Firefox.

Despite the conceptual freedoms of being totally customisable, for the average business IT manager Mozilla browsers like Firefox are less customisable than IE is. It’s far easier and therefore cheaper to knock out a crappy IE build than one of Firefox, even if Firefox is preferred. This has to change.

My first suggestion would be for Mozilla to provide a directory of developer contacts who would be willing and able to customise for cash. (I’m looking for someone to do this for my project – anyone?). Longer term, what’s needed is something akin to the IEAK for Firefox. Even if the functionality is limited to icons and preferences or whatever is technically simple, it would at least provide business users with an option. It needs to be easy for a business to choose to distribute and recommend Firefox, whilst still meeting their objectives of branding and customisation. At the moment, it’s not.

- Drew McLellan

Comments

  1. § Marcus: Depending on what you want to change, an awful lot of stuff can be changed through the chrome css and the user javascript. Obviously the problem with this is that the user could change it all back again, whereas in the IEAK you can actually remove features that you dont want them touching.

    An IEAK for Mozilla would be a cool project though….
  2. § Nathan Pitman: FAK doesn’t sound as cool as IEAK though, which is a shame.
  3. § Drew McLellan: How about the Firefox User Customisation Kit?
  4. § Marcus Williams: ... you beat me to it (although I was going to suggest Firefox User Customisation KIT) :)
  5. § Nathan Pitman: hehe! That’s good. :)
  6. § mattymcg: Would the Windows ME version be called the Firefox User Customisation Kit Millenium Edition?
  7. § Jesse: Your ichat says ‘here but working’ but I just don’t see it ;)

    What would it take really? You are talking a theme that can not be removed.. so how about just being able to set a theme and then removing that option? If I am not mistaken (it has been a while since I have used IE for any length of time plus I just woke up) you can not set themes on IE, just windows.
  8. § Pete Prodoehl: I’ve heard this brought up before, and it would probably help Firefox make inroads in the corporate environment as well.

    There’s probably a list of things that you can do today easily, through creating a default prefs file and booksmarks, but you are correct that it doesn’t for far enough.
  9. § Jemal: It sounds like you want a newer version of Netscape’s Client Customization Kit. The Mozilla version (I don’t know what sort of shape it’s in) is here:

    http://www.mozilla.org/projects/cck/
  10. § Ben Goodger: The need for a CCK is becoming more and more apparent each day. I hope to be able to devote some time to this after 1.0…
  11. § Jay Smith: OK. I can’t resist. Here is one more : Firefox User Customisation Kit – International Edition.
  12. § James: One of the most annoying things about those so-called ‘free’ ISP cd’s is the fact that they include a new browser or alter the default browser.

    Leave the user’s browser alone for crying out loud! The reason that these CD’s have such a bad rap is partly because they try to “brand” everything. Let XYZ corp suggest politely that a good starting place for people using them as an ISP would be www.xyz.com or whatever. Don’t force branding on people.

    /rant.
  13. § Mark Tyndall: It seems the level of customisation you’re after could be solved with a faux localisation, with maybe a dip into the themes if you want different graphics.

    All you should need is a copy of the latest Firefox installer, the 7zip (de)compression tool and your favourite text (and possibly image) editor.

    Extract files from the installer, get langenus.xpi (it’s a zip file) and extract its contents, then get en-US.jar and en-win.jar (they’re also zip files) and extract their contents (separately). Keep the folder structure.

    Explore the contents of the directory structures you’ve created – they contain the textual UI of Firefox.

    Also look at regus.xpi and deflenus.xpi. Bookmarks and default settings can be changed there. Probably even throbbers (the whirly animated icon that shows the browser’s doing something) are in one of those three XPIs – but I don’t know since I never wanted to change it.

    Oh yes, to put it back together, take a look at the instructions for localising Firefox
  14. § Tom: This may or may not work for you, in terms of deploying an ISP CD, however, FireFox has developed an IEAK like tool, the FFDeploy.exe, available at http://firefox.dbltree.com/ , and this may be what you’re looking for. It’s gone through several updates, last one being on 12-19-04, and fixing some minor bugs.
  15. § MountianAsh: I too have also worked on IEAK for ISP CD (sent to prospective customers with an interest; not handed/forced out).

    I think the biggest issue that many people are forgetting is that the IE install outputted from the IEAK also does and handles:
    * a check to see if Dial up Networking (DUN) is installed
    * a modem is installed
    * sets up a temp account and dials the sign-up server while opening the browser in kiosk mode
    * after signup accepts a file (.ins – could be updated to xml???) of user and up-tp-date ISP settings and then uses the settings to set-up a DUN account and OutlookExpress (OLE – could be changed to ThunderBird)

    I really think these features would also need to be handled by a Free User Customisation Kit Offering FireFox – couldn’t help myself.
  16. § Mark Sailes: I’ve been collecting some ideas on this area,

    custom lists of bookmarks, title bar text, activity indicator

    http://www.sailes.co.uk/projects/firefox_admin_toolkit/

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About Drew McLellan

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Drew McLellan (@drewm) has been hacking on the web since around 1996 following an unfortunate incident with a margarine tub. Since then he’s spread himself between both front- and back-end development projects, and now is Director and Senior Web Developer at edgeofmyseat.com in Maidenhead, UK (GEO: 51.5217, -0.7177). Prior to this, Drew was a Web Developer for Yahoo!, and before that primarily worked as a technical lead within design and branding agencies for clients such as Nissan, Goodyear Dunlop, Siemens/Bosch, Cadburys, ICI Dulux and Virgin.net. Somewhere along the way, Drew managed to get himself embroiled with Dreamweaver and was made an early Macromedia Evangelist for that product. This lead to book deals, public appearances, fame, glory, and his eventual downfall.

Picking himself up again, Drew is now a strong advocate for best practises, and stood as Group Lead for The Web Standards Project 2006-08. He has had articles published by A List Apart, Adobe, and O’Reilly Media’s XML.com, mostly due to mistaken identity. Drew is a proponent of the lower-case semantic web, and is currently expending energies in the direction of the microformats movement, with particular interests in making parsers an off-the-shelf commodity and developing simple UI conventions. He writes here at all in the head and, with a little help from his friends, at 24 ways.