Firefox 3: New front in the browser war

With the era of rich Web applications now blossoming, the browser matters again, and Mozilla believes Firefox 3 has the edge over Microsoft's IE.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
Expertise Processors, semiconductors, web browsers, quantum computing, supercomputers, AI, 3D printing, drones, computer science, physics, programming, materials science, USB, UWB, Android, digital photography, science. Credentials
  • Shankland covered the tech industry for more than 25 years and was a science writer for five years before that. He has deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and more.
Stephen Shankland
6 min read

Update 12:23 p.m. PDT: The official Firefox 3 download site is live; the record-setting attempt began at 11:16 a.m. PDT. Update 10:53 a.m PDT: See this separate blog post on the Mozilla download site troubles. Update 10:02 a.m. PDT: Mozilla is having some technical issues with the site but expects the download to be available shortly. Update 6:43 a.m. PDT: I added the scheduled launch time, 10 a.m. PDT.

Mozilla plans to release Firefox 3 on Tuesday, and the open-source project is opening a new front in the browser wars.

As the Web transforms from a static repository of content into a foundation for applications such as word processors and graphics editors, browsers are growing up from mere gateways into the tool that makes those applications possible. In this new era, it's Firefox--the heir to the Netscape legacy--that's going up against the victor of the last era, Internet Explorer.

"It gives you the horsepower you need to experience rich Internet apps as they should be from a performance standpoint," said Damon Sicore, Mozilla's director of platform engineering, mentioning Gmail and Google Maps specifically as applications where users don't want to wait. "As these apps get bigger and more complicated, faster browsers are going to become more critical."

The Firefox 3 'awesome bar' can give faster access to Web addresses.
The Firefox 3 'awesome bar' can give faster access to Web addresses.

Specifically, it takes 60 milliseconds to change Gmail from showing one message to another with Firefox 3, Sicore said, compared with 413 milliseconds for IE 7 and 227 for Firefox 2.

Microsoft is toiling away on IE8, though, with a first beta released and a second scheduled to emerge in August. The program has been reworked to improve performance, said Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager in charge of IE. With no prompting, he mentioned Gmail as one area where the company has received favorable feedback, and he clearly welcomes the competition.

"IE is the browser of choice for more people on the Web than anything else," Hachamovitch said. "There's an all-around quality, whether in ease of use, reliability, the security we stand by, that makes it a better choice."

Vying for share
Mozilla is a force to be reckoned with, with 18 percent market share to 74 for IE, according to Net Applications statistics. That's enough to ensure that major Web sites have to support Firefox.

Apple's Safari--now available for Windows, too, is in third place with 6 percent share. The next contender, Opera, has less than 1 percent, but it's scrappy: "The browser is the single most important piece of software made today, so innovation is incredibly important if you want to extend the reach of the Web," the company said in a statement.

Firefox is the second-ranked browser in market share.
Firefox is the second-ranked browser in market share for May 2008. Net Applications

Microsoft knows the stakes are high, with a richer Web coming into being. "It is a particularly fertile period. A bunch of pieces started lining up magically in the last couple years to get some innovation going here," Hachamovitch said

Firefox isn't shying away from competition either. To try to heighten its profile, Mozilla hopes to set a 24-hour download record with Firefox 3, which has been code-named Gran Paradiso. The download period is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. PDT.

Perhaps a more fruitful alternative to whipping fans into a lather through, though, would be to court business users.

"Mozilla needs to show corporations some love," said Forrester analyst Thomas Mendel in a recent report. "Large-scale, companywide deployments are not yet typical. Mozilla continues to expend little energy on wooing IT managers to formally adopt Firefox," for example by offering paid support services, he said.

Firefox 3 features
Faster performance is one Firefox 3 improvement Sicore points to. Two others are better memory handling and what's known as the "awesome bar."

To test memory use, Firefox programmers load 500 pages from top sites on the Web then closes and opens them thousands of times. Through that process, Mozilla stamped out many memory "leaks" under which Firefox 2 wouldn't relinquish memory once it was no longer needed, Sicore said. The company also reduced the amount of memory the browser requires overall.

But memory is hidden under the covers. Front and center is awesome bar, officially called the Smart Location Bar, which lets users type real words rather than sometimes abstruse URL addresses to call up Web sites.

For example, typing "maps" into the bar on my computer retrieves a list of some recent stories I've written involving maps as well as recent maps I've requested off the Internet. That's handy for retrieving recently visited Web sites quickly. Another example of how the feature worked well: I was trying to relocate a Web site I used to monitor Amazon.com's Web site performance, and typing "Amazon" into the bar showed the site--GrabPerf--as one of the options.

Mozilla uses its own formula to determine what results pop up in the list, weighting by factors such as how recently and how frequently you visited various sites. Typing "n" gets me to News.com in no time flat, but your own results will vary according to your browsing habits.

Firefox 3 has been steadily climbing in usage through its testing period.
Firefox 3 has been steadily climbing in usage through its testing period. Net Applications

The awesome bar has its detractors who'd like the feature to be optional. (Tweakers can disable the awesome bar by editing their Firefox configuration.)

Among other features in Firefox 3:

• A prominent warning when a user tries to open a page that has been shown to host malware such as viruses or spyware or that's involved in phishing--the attempt to fool people into entering personal information into a counterfeit Web site.

•  Offline data access, a feature that can make Web applications usable even when the network is unavailable. That's a potential boon for Web apps, but future versions of IE 8 and Safari also support the technology.

Web-based protocol handlers, which lets the browser launch a Web application rather than a PC program for certain actions such as a Web site "mailto" link that otherwise would create an e-mail in software such as Outlook.

• The Cairo graphics engine that lays the foundation for better direct integration with a computer's video hardware. "Video inside the browser is coming," Sicore said.

• animated PNG (Portable Network Graphics), another nail in the coffin of the GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) image type.

• A better full-page zoom feature that devotes maximum screen real estate to the browser. Moving the mouse pointer over a thin strip across the top of the screen temporarily pulls down the browser controls.

• A star button to quickly add bookmarks; double-clicking opens a dialog box that lets users describe bookmarks with tags.

• Support for Windows Vista's parental controls.

• And better support for Mac OS X. For example, it has a Mac-native appearance and has been re-plumbed internally to use Apple's Cocoa technology, a necessary step on the road toward 64-bit support.

Plug-in problems
One of Firefox's claims to fame is the wide collection of add-ons that are available. It's been a bumpy ride coaxing coders to support the new browser, though.

Some major add-ons now have arrived, including Yahoo's Delicious and the Firebug tool for Web site developers.

However, not everybody made the leap. One is Google Browser Sync, which synchronizes bookmarks, passwords, and other settings across multiple installations of Firefox 2. "Phasing out Google Browser Sync was a tough call, but we have decided to focus our efforts on other products, like Toolbar and Gears, that also extend the capability of multiple browsers," Google said of the Labs project in a statement. Happily, there are other alternatives--I like Foxmarks.

Of the top add-ons, "the majority have upgraded 3.0," Sicore said. The laggards will have a grace period "on the order of months" before Firefox 2.0 versions will automatically suggest installing the upgrade.