Firefox's future features: 3.6, 3.7, and 4.0

Beta testing of Firefox 3.6 should begin within a week, but more significant interface and architecture changes are due with next year's updates.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Some new fruits of Mozilla's effort to speed Firefox development are about to arrive.

Mozilla plans to release the first beta version of 3.6 this weekend or early next week. But what exactly is coming in the new version and its successors?

Mike Shaver, Mozilla's vice president of product development, and John Lilly, Mozilla's chief executive , detailed some of the browser's future in an interview at the corporation's headquarters here. And the company has an aggressive schedule, with three releases due within about a year.

Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering at Mozilla
Mike Shaver, vice president of engineering at Mozilla Stephen Shankland/CNET

The present version of Firefox was to have been called 3.1, but with significant new features, it became Firefox 3.5 --and arrived later than 3.1 had been planned. Version 3.6 is slated for release in final form this year, with 3.7 in the first half of next year and 4.0 about a year from now, Lilly said.

"We're trying to shrink these development cycles down," Shaver said.

Getting personal
One of the big changes with 3.6 is building in the Personas add-on that lets people customize the appearance of the browser. It's about as cosmetic as a change can be, but reskinning software often is popular among users who want to personalize their computers.

Under the covers but more noticeable is prioritized networking that gives the active tab the lion's share of network capacity to speed its loading. The goal is to speed up multipage restarts of the browser.

Tabs behavior will get a significant change that could throw some people off. New tabs generally will appear immediately to the right of the active tab when opened from a link, rather than at the far right of the tab strip.

Finally, Firefox 3.6 will support Open Web Font, a font format that supports compression and metadata to let the origins of a typeface be tracked down.

Support for new Windows 7 interface features, though, mostly will have to wait. "Aero Peek has landed in 3.6, but Jump Lists and download status in the Windows 7 task bar will have to wait for 3.7," according to this week's update. Aero Peek lets people see miniature versions of applications from the Windows task bar; Jump Lists spring up from applications on the task bar to let people take quick actions such as opening a recently used document or Web page.

A mock-up of Firefox 3.7 shows merged reload-stop button, the home tab, and the missing menu bar option.
A mock-up of Firefox 3.7 shows merged reload-stop button, the home tab, and the missing menu bar option. Mozilla
Firefox 3.7
For 3.7, the big change will be under the covers: plug-ins such as Flash will be moved to computing processes that are separate from the main browser operation, protecting the latter from problems with the former.

"We've seen more crashing since 3.5 came out, especially in last month or so," Lilly said, pointing to problems from Web-based malware attacks and from issues with Flash. The new design also should help split Firefox up into separate tasks that can take better advantage of all the computing threads offered by multicore processors.

Also coming in 3.7 will be new graphical animation work using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), two Web standards. And pushing the direction in which Chrome and Safari have been so aggressive, there will be new JavaScript work.

With version 3.0, Mozilla introduced Firefox's "awesomebar," officially but infrequently called the Smart Location Bar, which can be used not only to type addresses but also to retrieve the URLs of previously visited sites. With 3.7, expect an upgrade that lets people switch among active tabs by typing in the bar.

Firefox 3.7 also will mark the arrival of some significant changes to the user interface, though final details remain under discussion. Among the likely changes: a combined stop and reload button, a home tab instead of a home button, and the ability to run with the menu bar hidden.

One superficial change Mozilla hopes will make Firefox look less "dated" is work to make the browser fit in better with Windows Vista and Windows 7. There will be some corresponding changes to Firefox's Mac OS X interface, too.

This mock-up of Firefox 4.0 shows the 'tabs-on-top' option, the side-mounted menu buttons, combined address-search bar--all Google Chrome-like features.
This mock-up of Firefox 4.0 shows the 'tabs-on-top' option, the side-mounted menu buttons, combined address-search bar--all Google Chrome-like features. Mozilla
Firefox 4.0
Bigger changes come with version 4.0. There each browser tab will get its own process. "In Firefox 4 we'll have a more fully multiprocess architecture for stability and increasingly to take advantage of multiple cores," Lilly said.

Another big change will be with add-ons. One of Firefox's biggest assets is the rich array of these customization options--but a corresponding frustration is how those add-ons often break with each update to the browser.

Play

Firefox 4 will introduce a new add-on framework under development today called Jetpack that, like Chrome's, uses Web-based technologies for add-on construction. Today's Firefox uses a foundation called XUL.

Among the other perks besides compatibility, as Mozilla sees it, Jetpack extensions are easier to write and share, and they can be updated as the browser runs without a restart. Still, it will mean a big discontinuity for programmers.

"We want for developers to want to get onto Jetpack and the Jetpack application programming interface," Shaver said, and the current plan is to drop the older add-on technology with Firefox 4.

Finally, there will be more changes to the browser's appearance. Some have called it a Chrome copy--features include a merged location bar and search bar, removing the status bar across the bottom, and adding an option to put the tabs at the very top of the browser, all features introduced with Chrome. Lilly, though, bridles at the Chrome-copy idea.

"We're trying to get as much window space as possible for content," he said. "I don't think it's a move toward Chrome. We're trying to give space to the content."

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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