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Second Firefox 3.1 beta brings significant changes

A large swath of new features are arriving in the second beta of Firefox 3.1, including video support, private browsing, and background processing.

Usually not much happens to a software product from one point release to the next, much less one beta version to the next. But Mozilla has made quite a few changes with the second beta of Firefox 3.1, released Monday.

In the new version are support for video and audio built into Web pages, a built-in service for telling Web sites a user's location if users permit it, private browsing, Web worker support for more powerful Web-based programs, and my favorite feature, the TraceMonkey engine for running the JavaScript programs used to build sophisticated Web sites. TraceMonkey was released before, but now it's switched on by default.

The official announcement has more details for users, and programmers can check the developer site. CNET's site has the Windows and Mac OS X versions available.

The finished 3.1 version, code-named Shiretoko, is expected to arrive in early 2009 after a third beta, Mozilla has said. It arrives during a period of hot activity for browsers.

Apple is promoting its Safari browser for Windows as well as Mac OS X. Microsoft, the leader of the market, plans to release Internet Explorer 8 in 2009. And of course the biggest change is the arrival of Google Chrome, an open-source project that, like Safari, uses uses a project called WebKit for interpreting and displaying the basic HTML code used to describe Web pages. (Updated 10:05 p.m. PST to clarify that Chrome, not Firefox, uses WebKit.)

Mozilla Chairman Mitchell Baker is unfazed by the competition, though. Largely because of search-ad-related revenue from Google, the organization behind Firefox, the Mozilla Foundation, pulled in $75 million in 2007.