Mozilla released its fourth beta of Firefox 4 on Tuesday, bringing a new feature that addresses one of the biggest challenges in the new era of the browser: reclaiming control over the burgeoning number of tasks that now happen on the Web.
Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux, Firefox 4 beta 4 introduces a feature now called Firefox Panorama. Today's browsers typically cram tabs in a strip along the top of the window, but Panorama provides a Mac OS X Expose-like interface that groups tabs into related bunches.
Panorama presents an array of thumbnail images, each representing a tab. The thumbnails reside in rectangular boxes that constitute a group. Tabs can be moved from one group to another, and groups can be named and moved as well.
The overall idea is to make it easier to switch from one tab to another, to group or regroup related tabs, and overall to see what's going on. It's potentially a big improvement in browser usage, compared to aiming a mouse at an ever-skinnier tab, cycling through a list with alt-tab keystrokes, or pecking at a drop-down menu to reach the tabs that overflowed off the end of the list.
And notably for Mozilla, during a time of increasingly fierce browser competition, it's a feature none of its rivals possess right now. Opera has been taking swipes at the challenge with thumbnails of tabs, though, and on Monday, there were signs that Google is starting to tackle the problem more seriously. "I am working with the design leads to find a solution to this," Google Chrome engineer Andrew Bonventre said in discussion of the Chrome "tab overflow" issue.Firefox Panorama: How To from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.
There are limits to Panorama, as implemented today, though. In my tests on Mac OS X, it can be easy to get confused when using the tab strip at the top of the browser, because only the tabs in one group show across the top. For another thing, tab groups don't span multiple browser windows; each new browser window has its own tab groups in Panorama.
Also new in Firefox 4 beta 4 is Firefox Sync, the service once called Weave that synchronizes bookmarks, open tabs, passwords, browsing history, form autofill data, and other information, among different instances of Firefox that might be running on multiple computers or mobile devices.
"Firefox Sync encrypts all of your data before sending it to the server and does not track your travels throughout the Web. This means that you never have to compromise your privacy for the convenience of using Firefox Sync," Mozilla said of the feature.
Today's browser is growing ever more important in the technology realm as cloud-computing services such as SalesForce.com and Google Docs expand what's possible through a browser. The flip side, though, is that the browser can become a sprawling mess of tasks. User interface improvements can ease the pain.
Sync is geared for the cloud-computing era, too. With the state of one's computing chores stored on a server rather than a PC, it becomes easier to move from a work computer to a home PC to a mobile phone--and for that matter, to an airport Internet kiosk, a friend's Mac, an in-dash car computer, and whatever other windows on the Web will emerge.
Sync makes it easier to pick up and move to another machine without losing track of what's going on.
Mozilla faces significant challenges today. It remains the top alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but Microsoft lit a fire under its programmers and the fruits of that labor are now showing in IE9 work.
IE has begun reclaiming browser usage share, according to Net Applications' data on activity to its large network of Web sites, while Mozilla has been slipping. However, since usage overall is increasing in absolute terms, there's still room for growth.
Updated 12:48 p.m. PDT with further context on cloud computing.