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Firefox will get overhaul in bid to get you interested again

The newest version of the browser includes technology designed to speed it up and lock it down.

mozilla-servo-icon.jpg

Mozilla hopes to make Firefox faster and more secure with a project called Servo, which offers the bonus of a darling icon.

Mozilla

The Firefox browser has had a rough go in the last few years.

The number of people using Mozilla's browser has dwindled as the world has embraced Google's Chrome and started using phones where Firefox has a small presence. In the last two years, Firefox's worldwide market share has dropped from 13 percent to 8 percent, according to analytics firm StatCounter.

The next update to Firefox, however, represents the first step in Mozilla's long-term plan to get you using its web browser once again. It hopes to rekindle the interest and influence it claimed a decade ago by revamping its core, which could make complex websites like Facebook snappier but make it more difficult for attackers to launch attacks over the web.

First, though, Mozilla has some work to do.

With its initial step, announced Tuesday, Mozilla replaced one small part of Firefox with a new component written in Rust, an open-source programming language it invented. That first small change should arrive when Firefox 48 ships in August. In the long run, though, Mozilla plans to rebuild several parts of the Firefox core using Rust through a project called Servo.

Inventing new programming languages is fashionable among tech companies hoping to help programmers -- and themselves. Google's Go is designed to improve the company's core services, and Apple's Swift is geared to make it easier to build apps for Macs and iPhones.

But getting new programming languages to catch on widely is tough. For every success, like the Java language invented at Sun Microsystems and now managed by Oracle, there are lots that fizzle, like Sun's Fortress and Google's Dart. Programming languages change much more slowly than the rest of the tech industry. C and C++, the languages that Rust is designed to outdo, are decades old and deeply embedded.

Mozilla has won some fans with Rust. Online storage company Dropbox and network company OpenDNS are both using Rust in internal software projects. However, Mozilla's Firefox is the highest-profile effort involving Rust so far. Firefox's first Rust-built element, which handles video and audio files, runs as fast as the C++ component it replaces but isn't susceptible to memory problems that can result in security vulnerabilities, said Dave Herman, director of strategy at Mozilla Research.

Rust-built components will gradually replace more of Firefox, according to the nonprofit organization's plans. Those who want to try the technology can use a very rough Servo-based browser, though Mozilla cautions that it's not tested enough yet to be trusted with sensitive jobs like online banking.