Upon accepting this MSFT contract position, I had to sign a ton of paperwork preventing me from disclosing too much to certain parties, from certain types of requests/contact with full-time employees, and barring me from working with any other contracting agency for Microsoft for a long time. There were tons of other clauses I don’t even recall, and I remembered there being something about not using open-source software. I was so disappointed, as Firefox has always been my browser of choice, but I duly installed IE 7.0 and sucked it up, delving back into IE for the first time since about 2004.

I figured it was probably for the best – I don’t know what the protocol is on using Microsoft stuff versus non-Microsoft stuff here, but I figured it had to be frowned upon. But after mentioning this contract provision to a tech-savvy friend and complaining about not getting to use Firefox, he pointed out that I had probably misinterpreted the clause of my contract having to do with open-source software projects – I thought it said I couldn’t USE any. Turns out I just can’t CONTRIBUTE CODE to any (like I would have any idea how to do that!).

So after having used Internet Explorer regularly for the first few months, I downloaded the most recent version of Firefox to start making the switch. And I actually discovered many things about IE7 that I liked better than Firefox, which surprised me greatly. All MSFT internal websites are password-protected or even unrenderable (?) in FF but can login automatically using IE, so I wound up switching IE to my default browser just to bypass that part, but I still use Firefox for certain tasks (both personal and professional). The two really both have their merits and their drawbacks, so I guess this is my first stab at a software review!

The two have really similar interfaces and settings now, and there are a few things that IE surprisingly does much better. The most specific two things I like from IE are simple user functionality things that make a MASSIVE difference in my personal ease in navigation. I am a tab-whore – I tend to have up to thirty tabs open at once (and I wonder why my computer occasionally runs slowly). I LOVE this feature that all mainstream browsers are finally adopting (I started using Opera before the others had gone tab-happy and I loved it back then, despite the fact that it barely rendered any sites correctly) – it’s so much easier to use, in my opinion. However, once I have thirty tabs open, if I click on a link to open it in a new tab, IE groups that tab immediately beside its source page’s tab, whereas Firefox puts it all the way at the end of the tab queue. I find IE’s approach much more intuitive and easy when I’m dealing with a tab overload scenario, which happens to me pretty much daily.

The other thing my tab-whoring polyglot tendencies love is that IE remembers your keyboard language setting for each individual tab, whereas Firefox does it globally across all tabs – and given that I test in Catalan and often have both Catalan and English pages open, it’s great to be able to have each keyboard set to the appropriate tab. The two keyboard settings have very different placement of all punctuation/character keys plus a few letters, and I find it insanely irritating to be composing English-language text in a Firefox tab that happens to be set to Catalan because I also used a different tab to look up a Catalan dictionary entry – it means that all my apostrophes turn into accent marks, my question marks into weird slashes, and my at signs into quotation marks. Helpful. And certain super-necessary functions like parentheses are moved just one character over, so if you think you’re opening a string you’re actually closing it, etc. In addition to a separate rant that would regulate punctuation placement, I just have to rant about not being able to set the language for each tab in Firefox – though to be honest, there are times when it’s more useful to be able to do a global tab language selection (such as for multiple Catalan dictionary pages open at once). Honestly, the best thing would be if there were a setting for this that you could change according to your needs.

Honestly, the only things that I dislike about IE are the bookmark interface, and the lack of add-on capability – boo hoo, I know, but I have a couple Firefox add-ons that make my life much easier. That, and Firefox has such ease in their “clear private data” function, whereas you have to sort of search in order to erase that kind of information in IE, and it takes ages to do so, and I’m not convinced it truly clears everything. Still, I was really, really pleasantly surprised as to how much easier IE has been than I had braced for. And even Vista and Office 2007 are more intuitive to me now after a few short months working here, and I can actually see how they’re built for better functionality overall, even if my learning curve is steep as I try to forget the old paths and methods and terms (while still retaining enough to be able to survive on my personal XP laptop at home). So even though I still cling to Firefox for certain reasons, more based on familiarity than functionality, I feel a little bad not being loyal to the company product (I know that sounds ridiculous as I’m just here on a short contract – perhaps more “guilty of being caught” than anything else). BUT, that all changed the other day!

We software testers in my group at Microsoft have regular weekly meetings with a few of our bosses, just to check in and go over strategies, new tools, etc. Recently, we were talking about searching for a certain computational linguistics programming term on the Internet in order to incorporate examples of these functions into our lexical testing. Here’s roughly how that conversation went:

Boss #1: “So if you need to find out more about the regular expressions relevant to your language, you can just Google the term and look at where it appears in the results…”

Bosses #2 and #3, joined by Testers #1-8 in unision: “You mean LIVE SEARCH it?!!!”

Boss #1: “……” (blushes furiously)

You heard it here first, folks. Not all MSFT full-time employees even use company products. Google still reigns, at least in part. Given that even some full-timer Microsofties still use Google as their primary search engine, and I’m with them on that camp at present, I feel more secure in using FF. Hopefully no one’s offended that I still have a little candle burning for the open-source stuff – back when I worked elsewhere, I would sometimes submit feedback about usability, and I like to think that they might’ve heard me at some point. And besides, until LiveSearch exists in Catalan, I’ll dig my heels in on that one, as I rely on Google searches in Catalan to be able to do my job here at Microsoft well! But overall, I’m shocked by how much I enjoy MSFT-based products now – it was quite humbling to discover that I actually prefer IE in some contexts, for the first time in years. Well done, Bill!