honestpuck (Tony Williams) writes "If there is an application I run more often than my Web browser, particularly since I also use it as my email client, then I don't know what it might be. As a Firefox convert, that made the arrival of Firefox Hacks from O'Reilly a wonderful surprise." Read on for the rest of Williams' review.
The first of several books on the topic of Firefox hacking (two more are due from other publishers in the coming months) Firefox Hacks sets the bar quite high. The author, Nigel McFarlane, has already written a number of other books and articles on similar topics and knows his subject well. He has also enlisted the help of a number of other cognoscenti to cover the more distant corners covered in the book.
Over the course of the now-traditional 100 hacks found in the same series' other members, this book covers hacking with, on, and to almost all aspects of Firefox and the 'net. The book is broken up into nine chapters, most worth reading by almost everyone -- even the first, "Firefox Basics," taught me a couple of tricks for getting the best out of a slow (and expensive) GPRS connection. The others are "Security," "Installation," "Web Surfing Enhancements," "Power Tools for Web Developers," "Power XML for Web Pages," "Hack the Chrome Ugly," "Hack the Chrome Cleanly," and "Work More Closely With Firefox." I have to say I felt the chapter on Power XML (with 17 of the 100 hacks) was far too general on Web technologies and a little out of place; easily half the hacks in that chapter could have been dropped without any real loss to a reader's understanding of Firefox. I would have preferred more on the browser itself. No insult intended to Seth Dillingham, who wrote four of the hacks I'd throw out -- they are well written and do show how best to deal with Web technologies inside Firefox. I just felt that the space would have been better devoted to more "core" topics.
The first four chapters will be useful to everyone, covering mainly the use of Firefox. From that point, the hacks become increasingly complex as they cover Web development, then modifying the interface, before covering such arcana as creating extensions and custom builds.
I am hard pressed to think of a corner of Firefox not at least touched, though it must be said that the later hacks only touch on the topics covered without really providing a lot of depth. If you get to the last two chapters in the book, performing and expanding on the hacks, you will probably need a great deal more information and assistance to branch out on your own. McFarlane, however, points out the possibilities and gets you started. I didn't feel this was a flaw, just that a line had been drawn, as it must unless the book was going to be three times the size and price.
The book is fairly well written. The quality of writing and editing fall into that middle ground of "fairly good" that one expects from the average O'Reilly book, though not the "excellent" they can sometimes hit. The structure and flow are excellent, making the book readable in large chunks -- enough sticks that when you are back in front of the computer using Firefox you can remember a few things. (Or, sometimes, I remembered that a hint existed and was able to easily find and use the information.)
For a closer look there is a decent page at O'Reilly with links to six example hacks, the table of contents (listing all 100 hacks) and the index.
To conclude, I'm not sure I could recommend this book to everyone; it spends a little too much time a fair way along the technology curve for those who aren't ready for some programming, though for anyone who wants to get their hands dirty and perform some hardcore hacking on their favourite browser, then this is an above-average volume. For someone who is happy as "just a user," this book may be too much: wait and see what else emerges into the Firefox book market -- including O'Reilly's other offering, the soon-to-be-released Don't Click on the Blue E, which they describe as giving "non-technical users a convenient roadmap for switching to a better web browser--Firefox."
Also watch soon for a review of Prentice Hall's Firefox & Thunderbird Garage. You can purchase Firefox Hacks from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.