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Firefox 4 upgrade ideas start becoming reality

WebM video, hardware-accelerated video, and a user interface overhaul start arriving in a test version of what will become Firefox 4.

Mozilla released a new Firefox 4 prototype late Monday that builds in support for Google's WebM video technology and several other changes planned for the open-source Web browser's next major version.

With WebM, Google hopes to liberate Web video from patent-related royalty constraints of today's prevailing video compression technology, H.264. Mozilla and Google are working to make WebM's VP8 codec a standard part of the new specification for built-in video being added to the HTML5 Web page design technology.

But the situation is complicated: Apple prefers the H.264 codec and has built that codec into its Safari browser, and Microsoft is doing so with IE9, its upgrade to Internet Explorer now under development. Google's Chrome is supporting both H.264 and WebM, whose video codec is called VP8.

Lending a bit of weight to the Mozilla and Google camp is Opera Software, the fifth-ranked browser in terms of share of usage. On Monday, it released an Opera developer version that adds WebM support among various other HTML5 additions.

The browser market is feistier than it's been in more than a decade. Back in the 1990s, the competition came down to Netscape vs. Microsoft. This time around, Netscape's Navigator has morphed into Mozilla's Firefox, Apple has launched five versions of Safari, Opera has kept the pressure on the bigger players, Google has entered the market with Chrome, and, most recently, Microsoft has fired up IE development after a long period of quasi-dormancy.

That's good and bad for the average person. Upgrades now come more often, bringing new user interfaces to learn, but the new versions also unlock new uses for the Web. A sustained focus at all the major browser makers on improving performance stands to make the Web snappier. Last, full-fledged browsers are arriving on smartphones, first Apple's iPhone, but now many others including products from Samsung, Google, Hewlett-Packard's Palm, Mozilla, and later, Research in Motion.

The new Opera version also supports geolocation, an HTML feature that lets a browser--with a person's authorization--tell a Web site the user's physical location for services such as maps. Geolocation isn't strictly speaking part of HTML5, but the term is often used to refer to a swath of new Web technologies under development.

Also new in the Opera test version is support for HTML5 application caching, which can let a Web site tell a browser which files to store in its cache so they're available even when a computer isn't connected to the Net, and Web workers, which let a Web site create background processing tasks for a more sophisticated Web site user interface and for better utilization of multicore processors.

Firefox, which holds the No. 2 spot in usage after IE, is considerably more widely used than Opera, and it's therefore a somewhat more important vehicle for bringing new features to the Web. Mozilla coders are racing to add what they can before the Firefox 4 code base settles down. Mozilla hopes to freeze the code base next week in order to release the first Firefox 4 beta shortly afterward.

Mozilla periodically releases preview versions of the new browser engine, called Gecko, in part so Web developers can test how well their sites and browser users can nail down bugs. But for those who have an appetite for even more cutting-edge and untested software than this developer preview of Gecko 1.9.3, a look at what's to come can be seen even sooner in the Firefox nightly builds.

Graphics changes--and delays
One significant one is hardware acceleration for full-screen HTML5 video, according to a blog post by Mozilla evangelist Chris Blizzard. Hardware acceleration unburdens a computer's main processor, handing the task to the graphics processor instead and saving battery life as a result. On Windows, it employs Microsoft's Direct3D 9 technology; on Mac OS X, it uses the OpenGL.

Not yet in the beta are deeper changes to graphics, a two-part plan to bring hardware acceleration to many more Firefox workings. The first part, layers, offload many tasks to hardware acceleration with Direct3D and OpenGL. Farther along in the page-drawing process comes the second, Direct2D acceleration, which only works on Windows.

Unfortunately for Mozilla, the late arrival of the attempt to bring Direct3D-based layers to the Windows XP crowd has pushed back other graphics acceleration. the Direct2D work for those using Windows 7 or later versions of Windows Vista. "This far into the quarter, we are certain to miss our OpenGL and OpenGL ES goals, as we have decided to double down on our Direct2D and Direct3D 9 work. This doesn't mean that we've dropped OpenGL and OpenGL ES, just that they won't get done this quarter," Mozilla developer Joe Drew said in a mailing list post on Monday, warning that other graphics work could slip, too.

Arriving in the Mozilla preview are elements of a new user interface for the browser that does away with the menu bar, arranges tabs above the address bar, and fits in with Windows' Aero display technology. And Blizzard tooted Mozilla's horn that the browser is the first to sport an HTML5 parser, the new and faster module that processes Web pages.

Firefox won't be the only one with a new parser, though. Programmers for WebKit, the browser engine behind Safari and parts of Chrome, announced early progress on the WebKit HTML5 parser in late May, and "it looks like the HTML5 parser is roughly a 5% speedup on the parsing benchmark," said WebKit programmer Adam Barth in a mailing list post. Only one of the two elements of the parser is finished so far.

Chrome changes, too
Chrome 5 is newly released, and Google programmers are settling down the Chrome 6 plans. One element that's begun arriving in test builds is extensions synchronization, which will mean that a person's versions of Chrome running on different computers will be able to use the same extensions automatically, just as bookmarks already are synced.

However, some features that had been slated for Chrome 6 have been pushed back. One is a 64-bit version of Chrome for the Mac, which on Monday was demoted from Version 6 to the indefinite future and from priority 1 to priority 2.

Also pushed back from Chrome 6 was a feature to synchronize tabs across different versions of Chrome. However, password sync still appears to be a top priority and scheduled to arrive in Chrome 6.