Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Firefox add-ons for the occasional web developer

I'm not a hardcore web developer but I do some occasional web-based work, and one of the issues I have is that - because web applications exist in an environment which spans both browser and server (and which often seems to hide the workings of its components) - it can be quite difficult to see under the hood when there are problems.

Fortunately there are a number of adds-on for Firefox (my browser of choice) that can help. These are the ones that I like to use:
  • Firebug is possibly one of the most essential add-ons for web development. I first came across it as a Javascript logger and debugger, but it's far more than that: describing itself as a complete web development tool, its functionality extends to HTML and CSS in additional to script profiling and network analysis capabilities. As an occasional user I've found the Javascript debugging functions invaluable, and the ability to edit CSS in-place and see the results immediately has also been really helpful in debugging style sheets - in fact its biggest downside from my perspective is that it's not immediately obvious how to use many of its functions.
  • Live HTTP Headers is a great tool for exposing the interactions between your browser and a server. I found this invaluable when I was debugging some website functionality that I was developing earlier this year, as it enabled me to follow a redirect that I'm sure I couldn't have seen otherwise.
  • QuickJava is a utility that allows support for Java, Javascript, Flash, Silverlight, images and others to be toggled on and off within your browser, enabling you to check how a page behaves when viewed by someone who doesn't have these enabled.
  • I really like the HTML Validator for ensuring that my HTML markup is actually W3C compliant; the main issue with this is that it's only available for Windows platforms. Provided you have the "Add-on Bar" visible in Firefox (toggle via "Options" in the Firefox main menu, or do ctrl+/), this displays a little icon at the bottom of the screen indicating the goodness or otherwise of your markup.

There are a few other useful add-ons for working with design elements like colours and images:

  • Colorzilla is a tool that allows you (among other things) to pick colours from the current webpage and get the corresponding hex codes or RGB values.
  • Measureit creates a ruler that lets you measure the size of page elements in pixels - particularly helpful when sizing images for web display.
  • In the past I've found the in-browser screen capture utility Fireshot quite handy for taking screenshots of an entire webpage including the off-screen portions. I have to admit I haven't used it for a while though. There's a paid "pro" version which offers a lot of additional functionality.
Although I've given URLs, the easiest way to install any of these is via the "Get Add-ons" tab accessed via the "Add-ons" option in Firefox's main menu (I'm using Firefox 8.0 at the time of writing). Once installed the individual add-ons appear in various places, for example by default Firebug's icon can be found at the top-right hand corner. If an add-on's icon doesn't appear automatically (as seems to happen for Measureit) then you might have to add it manually: go to "Options"/"Toolbar layout", locate the item and drag it to the toolbar.

I wouldn't try to argue that this is definitive list, but for an occasional user like as myself these tools work well and (with the exception of Firebug) are easy to remember how to use even after several months away from them. However if these don't meet your needs then I'd recommend checking out the "Web Development" category of Mozilla's add-ons site for many more options.

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