Firefox 3.5 'Web upgrade' planned for end of June

With Firefox 3.5, Mozilla hopes to "upgrade the Web" with new features such as faster performance, built-in video, and new graphics technology.

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Stephen Shankland
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Mozilla plans to issue a release candidate for Firefox 3.5 on Friday and the final version by the end of the month, Firefox director Mike Beltzner said Tuesday.

The browser, code-named Shiretoko, began its life as a modest 3.1 upgrade. But as Mozilla's ambitions expanded and other browsers such as Google Chrome exerted competitive pressure, the new Firefox was promoted to version 3.5 and its planned ship date slid back several months. You can grab the Firefox 3.5 beta for Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Firefox 3.5 comes with a spate of new features--5,000 total, according to Mozilla. Among the major ones: built-in video; local storage to enable richer Web applications that can work even with no network connection; a private browsing mode; geolocation to aid Web pages that can benefit from knowing a user's location; and faster performance loading pages and executing Web-based JavaScript programs.

"We've added technology we think upgrades the Web itself," Beltzner said.

Mozilla squeezed in a post-beta-4, pre-RC1 Firefox update last week, and the official release candidate 1 will get mostly a handful of changes to correctly handle some unusual JavaScript situations correctly, Beltzner said. And because of Firefox's extensive beta-testing network--800,000 people use the beta versions--Mozilla expects that RC1 will be the sole release candidate.

"We're aiming the final release around the end of the month," Beltzner said.

Firefox trails only Internet Explorer in market share, and Mozilla says its use is growing fast.
Firefox trails only Internet Explorer in market share, and Mozilla says its use is growing fast. Net Applications

Update 12 p.m. PDT: Other features in Firefox 3.5 include support for Web workers, which can enable browser-based applications to run in the background; personas to more easily provide themes; downloadable fonts; better built-in graphics technology through CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) standards; the ability to delete browsing traces for a recent period of time or specific Web site; and built-in support for the JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) technology for better communications between a browser and server.

What's after Firefox 3.5?
Mozilla has a number of improvements in mind for the successor to Firefox 3.5, code-named Namoroka, and Beltzner said programmers are eager to get 3.5 out so they can get cracking.

One is a process isolation technology called Electrolysis that should help protect Firefox from crashes, said Damon Sicore, director of platform engineering. Competing browsers' process isolation can help keep the browser running even when one page or plug-in misbehaves, but Firefox today crashes in its entirety, employing the less graceful approach of trying to reopen the pages upon restart.

The first phase of Electrolysis will be to isolate plug-ins such as Adobe Systems' Flash so a problem won't crash the whole browser, Sicore said. "It's going faster than we expected. By the end of July we hope to have a prototype," a separate development version of Firefox where the technology can be tested, he said.

Next up for Electrolysis will be a broader isolation technology that separates the processes of tabs, he said. "The goal for that is somewhere around the end of year in prototype form," Sicore said.

Also in the future is a 64-bit version of Firefox for Mac OS X. "We have people working on that now, a 64-bit version on Mac OS X. The majority of that is supposed to be done by end of quarter," Sicore said. Again, loose deadline is for prototype work, not a production version.

Apple's new Snow Leopard operating system is fully 64-bit, including Safari, and Apple boasts that JavaScript runs much faster in the 64-bit version

Most Firefox add-ons should move easily to 64-bit versions, Beltzner said, unless they include binary software compiled specifically for 32-bit operating stems.

Though 64-bit Windows is now arriving, "It's not one of our supported-tier platforms," Beltzner said.

Firefox also plans to improve performance in Namoroka, including start-up time and user interface responsiveness.

Firefox in second place
Firefox broke the lock Microsoft's Internet Explorer had on the browser market, and now there's abundant competition. Apple's new Safari 4 works both on Mac OS X and Windows, Google's Chrome is advancing the performance agenda, and Opera is trying to advance the state of Web computing.

But Mozilla has a big leg up on other IE rivals. Based on the number of machines that ping Mozilla's servers, the organization estimates there are 300 million Firefox users worldwide--a major increase from the 175 million a year ago when Firefox 3.0 was released amid "Download Day" promotional fanfare. According to NetApplications, Firefox has 22.5 percent share, a number that Beltzner said corresponds reasonably well with Firefox's own measurements.

"Our growth has been steady and strong throughout the past year," Beltzner said.

One of Firefox's competitive advantages is an active community, not just the open-source coders who help Mozilla with the core programming but also vocal fans, translators, testers, and programmers who write add-ons. That community has been helpful in places like Poland, where Firefox has nearly 50 percent market share, and Indonesia, where it has the majority, Beltzner said.