328-firefox-4

Firefox’s rapid release schedule has not been the success Mozilla hoped. Most web developers agree it’s good for HTML5 feature evolution but it’s not without problems:

  • Add-on compatibility. Most of us use extensions which cannot keep up with Firefox’s development progress.
  • Increased effort. The majority of IT departments must test mission-critical applications before a browser update can be deployed throughout the enterprise.
  • Confusion. Few people understand the rationale behind major version increments. Why shouldn’t Firefox 6 be version 4.2?

Mozilla is replicating Google’s release model but Chrome does not necessarily exhibit the same problems. It’s add-ons system is far simpler; more akin to bookmarklets than integrated code. The browser also has fewer legacy hurdles and has silently updated since the early days. Those using Chrome either understand this concept or don’t care.

One solution Mozilla considered was the removal of version numbers from Firefox’s “Help > About” dialog. Mozilla’s logic:

  1. Few users understand version numbers.
  2. Removal would simplify the UI.
  3. Users would be informed when the last check occurred, whether they were using the latest version, and how they could update (if Firefox had not automagically done so).
  4. If you really needed the version number, it could be found in about:support.

Uproar ensued on Bugzilla and the associated newsgroup discussion. The majority of respondents detested the idea (although a large volume of ranting and spam appeared when Mozilla’s intentions went public).

The organization put forward some reasonable arguments but ultimately backed down. Mozilla’s Robert Kaiser:

Can we close this bug report?

Version numbers in software are like coordinate systems in physics: irrelevant and necessary at the same time — it’s completely irrelevant how you do them, but they provide necessary reference points. Not more, not less.

Where ever we go with this, I don’t think it will have either a large impact on version number messaging or on making Firefox useless, so I think the rage on both sides is overrated.

The reply from VanillaMozilla:

Done … I’m having a hard time finding anyone at all who thinks this is a good idea.

The argument become overheated but Mozilla’s proposition had a number of flaws:

  1. It went against established UI conventions that span OSes and 20+ years of IT development. There may be better ways, but removing version numbers is not likely to be the best solution.
  2. The proposal was too simplistic and did nothing to tackle Firefox’s rapid update issues. Version numbering was never the cause or the cure.
  3. Users may not understand version numbers, but removing them was a non-issue. Firefox wouldn’t suddenly become easier to use.
  4. There are multiple versions of Firefox in the wild. Some would have version numbers, some wouldn’t. None of the older editions would state they were out of date.
  5. Version numbers are important to developers and IT support staff. What’s the first question you ask when someone reports a problem in a specific browser?

Version numbers have been rendered meaningless in Chrome and Firefox. Few people know or care what version of Chrome they’re running. Perhaps, one day, the same will be true for Firefox — but we’re not there yet.

Firefox is an older browser with far more baggage and a large, passionate user community. Mozilla ultimately listened to their demands, but the the proposal and subsequent onslaught did nothing for the browser.




Mozilla has offered a first glimpse of its Firefox for Tablets web browser.

The company described the new product as “an evolution of its phone based predecessor, with some added enhancements that take advantage of a tablet’s larger screen size,” in a blog post.

From what we can see (which is admittedly not much at this point), that seems to be a pretty good description. The tablet version has room for more UI elements, such as a row of tabs, unlike Firefox for mobile. A tab menu appears on the left side of the screen in landscape mode or on the top of the screen in portrait mode.

Theme-wise, the browser heavily borrows from Honeycomb, Android’s operating system for tablets. But you’ll still find familiar Firefox elements, including a big back button and Firefox’s signature “Awesomebar” — a URL field that also searches bookmarks, history and synched desktop activity.

Mozilla has still not announced a release date.

Firefox for Tablets — Tabs

Firefox for Tablets — Awesomebar

Firefox for Tablets — Theming

More About: Firefox, firefox for tablets, mozilla

531-banishing-url-bar

Google wants Chrome to be a clean distraction-free browsing experience. They’re possibly about to take their most radical step yet. Interface minimalism will reach it’s ultimate zenith with the removal of the address bar.

Madness?

Perhaps. But Mozilla are considering the same UI move.

The idea has received an overwhelmingly negative response from technical users. However, before you reach for your soapbox, be aware that it’s only a proposal which may never see the light of day. If it does happen, it will almost certainly be an option and “compact view” might only be permitted on application tabs. When enabled, the user may have to double-click a tab to view the URL.

So why does Google think a 30-pixel gain is so important? It would provide an extra 5% of space on some tablet and netbook screens, but there are deeper reasons…

I use the address bar. You probably use it too. But many users don’t. Non-technical users rarely understand URLs; it’s plainly obvious when you observe them type www.whatever.com into Google’s search box. So why retain a feature few people use?

We should also consider how web use is changing. We know the browser is a separate application but it’s likely to evolve as operating system vendors attempt a more integrated approach. Icons, application tabs and pinned sites are just the start. The distinction between online and offline is already blurred and, within a few years, users won’t know or care where an application resides.

There’s also been a noticeable shift in internet marketing. While companies still promote their URL on advertising media, many now publish more memorable search keywords for Google or Facebook.

Finally, there are commercial incentives. Without the bar, users must resort to a search engine; they’ll aways see a page of results and revenue-paying adverts before reaching their destination.

But what about the drawbacks? If you can’t see the address bar, it’s more effort to enter a URL. If users really don’t want the bar, it can usually be hidden or they can switch to full-screen mode (F11 in most browsers).

Web developers also depend on the URL — especially when testing web applications or REST services. Removing the bar will make our lives more difficult.

Finally, without the address bar, it’s more difficult to ensure you’re on the correct site or check security settings. Those involved in phishing scams will be eagerly anticipating the UI change.

The idea makes me uncomfortable. Users may not understand URLs, but removing the bar won’t help them learn. I’m sure many car drivers don’t understand hydraulics but that’s not a reason to remove their brakes (OK — bad metaphor, but a web without URLs is not without danger).

I’m all for UI simplification, but this seems like a step too far. If it happens, Google should rename their browser: “Chrome-less” would be more apt.

What do you think? Should the address bar go? Could it be an option? Are the risks too great?

328-firefox-4

If you’ve been waiting to upgrade to Firefox 4, you’re too late! As promised, Mozilla released Firefox 5 on June 21 2011 — just three months after version 4 was launched. The organization has embarked on a Chrome-like release-little, release-often rapid-update schedule.

If you’re too excited to read further, download the installer from getfirefox.com or update by selecting Help > About Firefox > Check for Updates. You may be lucky enough to receive a fast incremental update — it didn’t work for me and the full installer was downloaded.

Firefox 4 was a major update. You’re unlikely to spot any immediate differences in version 5 since most of the changes are under the hood:

  • support for CSS3 animations with the -moz prefix
  • improved JavaScript and canvas performance
  • additional HTML5, SVG and MathML features
  • faster browsing

Developers should also note that setTimeout and setInterval events will only execute once per second or less frequently on inactive tabs. It replicates the behavior of requestAnimationFrame to save CPU and power consumption.

Great — but there’s a downside. You may find several of your add-ons are disabled by Firefox 5. They should work, but many authors have not yet updated their add-on’s version numbers. Firebug and the Web Developer Toolbar are fine, but Console2 and HttpFox are blocked.

Not every plugin author has the time or resources to match the new schedule. It’s unfortunate and I hope Mozilla can address the problem. Perhaps a less formal approach could be adopted which allows the community to test and approve plugins without relying on the author to hard-code supported versions. Alternatively, Mozilla could have simply released Firefox 4.1 — the numbering is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Despite the add-on hassles, it’s good to see updates appearing more regularly. Let us know what you think of the Firefox 5.

Mozilla’s Firefox 4 was released early Tuesday. The release comes nearly two years after Firefox 3.5 and three years after Firefox 3.

The web browsing landscape has changed significantly since then, with Google’s Chrome browser winning converts left and right, while mobile and tablet browsing gained new ground.

When Firefox first hit the scene in the early 2000s, Mozilla’s open-source browser was a refreshing change of pace for users and designers alike. It brought innovative features like tabbed browsing to the mainstream (although Opera did it first). It used add-ons to an extent that hadn’t been seen before.



Over the last few years, early adopters — once the core evangelists for the browser — shifted away from it. Those add-ons started to bog the program down. Meanwhile, the new layout engine of choice for web developers isn’t Gecko (which powers Firefox), but WebKit (which powers Apple Safari, Google Chrome, and the browsers for BlackBerry and Android).

Firefox 4 is an important release for Mozilla — perhaps the most important release since 1.0. The competition has never been so strong. We have been using the beta releases extensively and spent some time with the final release. So how does Firefox 4 stack up against the competition? Are the changes enough to keep current users from switching — and lure old users back?


Look and Feel


Mozilla first started talking about Firefox 4.0 in July 2009. The early screenshot previews — featuring tabs on top, a la Chrome — were a radical departure at the time.

Although the comparisons to Chrome are unavoidable, I think that Firefox 4 improves upon Google’s minimalist design.

Tabs are on top, but the browser window is still easily draggable. Users won’t make the mistake of dragging a tab rather than the full window. Moreover, cycling through tabs is more elegant and less cluttered than either Safari 5 or Chrome 10.

By default, Mozilla has changed the location of the home button. It also added a new bookmark bar. Fortunately, these components can be customized and removed (simply right click on them and hit “customize”). Like Chrome, Firefox eschews the the status bar on the bottom of the screen, only using it as an overlay when needed. This adds a few more pixels of space to the viewing window.

Firefox 4 includes an innovative new tab grouping feature known as Panorama. Panorama started life as Tab Candy, an experimental feature introduced by former Mozilla Creative Lead Aza Raskin. It creates different groups of tabs and lets you switch easily between them. Panorama is a great feature for power users, but anyone who don’t want to use a grouping system can ignore it and never know the difference.


Speed


Firefox used to be the fastest browser on the block. Over the years, the program has become bloated. Increasingly, the speed factor in web browsers is less about the rendering engine and more about the JavaScript engine.

Firefox 4 claims to be up to six times faster than its predecessor. In our tests, load times did seem about that fast — though Google Chrome 10 still seems to bring up pages more quickly.

The speed increases aren’t merely limited to page load times, however. Firefox 4 starts up significantly faster on my Mac (an iMac with a 2.8GHz i7 and 12GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.6.7) than its predecessor. In fact, in a timed test, Firefox 4 launched from dock to default homepage at nearly the exact same speed as Google Chrome 10.


Performance, Memory Usage, Stability


As a full-time Mac user since 2007, I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with Firefox. Certain websites (particularly corporate backend systems) just work better in the browser than in Safari. But Firefox has never been particularly well tuned to Mac OS X machines. Firefox 3 was a significant improvement, but frankly, Firefox has remained a memory hog.

The biggest problem with Firefox versions of the past — and this is true of both Mac OS X and Windows releases — is that the program has the tendency to leak memory. This problem only gets worse on systems with lots of add-ons installed and can be made worse still by plugins like Flash.

Mozilla has said that Firefox 4 consumes less memory and is more stable. I wanted to see if this was true. Using the Activity Monitor in Mac OS X, I tracked the amount of real memory, CPU utilization and CPU threads in Firefox 4, Firefox 3.6.15, Safari 5.0.4 and Chrome 10.0.6.448.151 stable.

I tried to install the same number of add-ons or extensions to each browser. The goal was to re-create the average browsing session. I then opened a number of memory-hogging tabs, including Farmville and Hulu with video playing.

I tested the memory and CPU usage for each browser. Remember, your mileage may vary.

First, the good news — in my tests, Firefox 4 consumes less memory and CPU cycles than Firefox 3.6.15. When adding in Flash and other plugin usage to the total memory footprint, only Google Chrome 10 performs better.

The bad news — and this is really for all four browser variants tested — is that the overall usage is still fairly high. The big culprit here is Adobe Flash. Improvements have been made on this front in Windows and with certain graphics chipsets on the Mac (my Radeon HD 4850 unfortunately, is not included), but Flash is the greatest cause of browser performance and memory usage issu
es.

So if Firefox 3.6.x takes up a lot of memory on your system, the improvements in Firefox 4 might not be significantly better.

What is new is that Firefox 4 now segregates its regular browsing processes from so-called plugin processes. Previously, Firefox was the sole item to appear in the Mac OS X Activity Monitor. With Firefox 4, a “Firefox Plugin Process” appears as well.

So if Flash wasn’t running a game and playing back a video, that Plugin Process usage would be considerably less. Rather than relying on the browser to free up the memory (something Firefox is historically bad at doing), the plugin process can simply be freed up.

Moreover, if a plugin crashes, the browser can recover without taking down the entire session. Apple is doing something similar in Safari 5.0.x, which shows Flash Player as its own process. If Flash crashes, the rest of the browser can stay intact.

With Chrome, Google goes a step further and actually separates each tab into its own process. That makes it easy to shut down one tab and keep the rest of the session running. Chrome doesn’t separate Flash as its own entity; the browser uses its own sandboxed version of Flash Player.

It’s great that Mozilla has decided to split up the way Firefox uses memory. Recovering from crashes is less time consuming, and regular system memory can be reclaimed more quickly.

Since Firefox 4 Beta 8, I have found the browser to be very usable with few stability issues. The few issues that remained up until the final release — notably Netflix not wanting to work well on the Mac — have been resolved in Firefox 4. In the 24 hours I have been testing Firefox 4, I haven’t had the browser seize or crash. It’s rare that I don’t have to invoke “force quit” for Firefox 3.6.15, so this is a great sign.


Add-ons


Mozilla has restructured how its add-on system works. Add-on installation and browsing now takes place in a designated browser window, rather than a pop-up menu. This is much more easy on the eyes and makes finding and installing or removing add-ons and browser themes more fluid.

Most major Firefox add-ons now work with Firefox 4. Users may run into situations where an add-on is incompatible. But most developers seem to have answered the call. If your favorite add-on isn’t updated in the next week or two, it might be time to look for a replacement; it probably indicates developer abandonment.

Firefox is continuing to move towards lighter weight extensions like those for Google Chrome, Safari and Opera. These add-ons can be built using HTML, CSS and JavaScript and tend to use less memory and resources. They also tend to have less of an impact on overall browser performance and stability.

Still, at this stage, most major Firefox add-ons still use the traditional add-on API and require a browser restart when updated, installed or uninstalled.

I have long said that add-ons and extensions are Firefox’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The impact that the extensibility these add-ons added to the browser on overall user adoption cannot be understated. It’s equally true, however, that the performance impact some popular add-ons can have on the browser has hurt Firefox’s image as a whole.

Even with Chrome, users have to battle how many extensions are installed versus the performance impact on the browser. It’s a tough line to straddle between utility and performance. But from what I understand about the Firefox add-on APIs and toolkits, it is an area Mozilla has spent a lot of time working to make better.


Overall


So is Firefox 4 good enough to lure back old users and to keep existing users satisfied?

For me, the answer is yes. While I don’t anticipate using Firefox as my primary browser (I tend to use Safari), keeping Firefox running on my computer is no longer something I fear.

The new user interface is fresh and inviting. Panorama is something I could see using on a regular basis, and the memory and performance improvements live up the expectations.

Firefox fanatics are going to love it. Developers that test in multiple browsers are going to be very pleased. Still, I don’t know if being on par with the competition is enough to bring old users back.

I’m going to continue to use Firefox 4 more over the next few weeks. For me, that’s an important development. Since Google Chrome officially came to the Mac in December of 2009, I have used Firefox primarily only to access certain websites behind a VPN. It’s great to actually enjoy using the old girl again.

Let us know your thoughts about Firefox 4 in the comments.

More About: Browsers, chrome, Firefox, Firefox 4, Internet Explorer 9, mozilla, reviews, safari

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After months of development, no fewer than 10 beta releases and a release candidate, Firefox 4 is finally here.

An ambitious release for Mozilla, Firefox 4 promises to be not only faster than previous releases — but also more streamlined. We’ve already discussed some of the major changes in the venerable browser and will be putting out our own in-depth review later today.

Firefox 4 enters the browsing market at an important time. Not only is Microsoft back in the browser game with IE 9, but Google’s Chrome browser continues to gain in popularity around the world. Features like tabbed browsing, extensions and add-ons that once set Firefox apart from the crowd are now standard features across all major browsers and platforms.

The results, in our early tests, are a leaner, faster Firefox that holds up well against its increasingly tough competition.

Check out this video that interactive agency JESS3 made to introduce Firefox 4 to the world:

More About: Firefox, Firefox 4, mozilla, web browsers

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Google and Mozilla have both announced new browser initiatives that will allow users to opt out of having their activities tracked by online advertisers. These developments are at least partially in response to the “Do Not Track” lists proposed by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

In December, the FTC released a 122-page report [PDF] outlining the concept, which has been called a “Do Not Call” list for online behavioral advertising. Rather than make calls for legislation, the FTC has pushed for browser makers and advertisers to self-regulate.

Although targeting the same problem, Mozilla and Google are are approaching opt-out online behavioral advertising from different directions.


Firefox: Do Not Track HTTP Header


On Sunday, Mozilla formally announced its plans to build a do-not-track feature into future versions of Firefox. Alex Fowler, the global privacy and public policy leader at Mozilla, explained the proposed feature on his blog:

“When the feature is enabled and users turn it on, web sites will be told by Firefox that a user would like to opt out of OBA. We believe the header-based approach has the potential to be better for the web in the long run because it is a clearer and more universal opt-out mechanism than cookies or blacklists.”

Mozilla’s Sid Stamm has written his thoughts on the proposal and he explains why the HTTP header approach was chosen fro Firefox:

“Currently, to opt out of online behavioral advertisements, you have to get a site to set an opt-out cookie so they won’t track you. There are various web sites that help out (NAI, IAB UK) and there are Firefox add-ons (TACO, beef taco, etc.) that can streamline this process. But this is a bit of a hack; it’s nearly impossible to maintain a list of all the sites whose tracking people may want to opt-out from. It would be more attractive if there was one universal opt-out signal that would tell all sites you want to opt out.”

Instead, Stamm proposes the use of a HTTP header that is transmitted with every HTTP request and that lets ad networks know a user does not want to bee tracked.

This approach of using a Do-Not-Track HTTP header differs from some other opt-out online behavioral advertising solutions, which utilize either opt-out cookies or an opt-out registry. Michael Hanson from Mozilla Labs has posted a technical analysis of Mozilla’s proposal on his blog.

One advantage of using a header and not a cookie to carry opt-out information is that even if user clears his or her browser cache, the opt-out settings will still remain in place.

As The Wall Street Journal points out, however, for Mozilla’s tool to work, “tracking companies would need to agree to not monitor users who enable the do-not-track feature.” As of this writing, no companies have publicly agreed to participate. Mozilla will have to convince advertisers to comply with its header proposal for this idea to actually gain traction.


The Google Approach


Meanwhile, Google has released a new extension for Google Chrome called Keep My Opt-Outs. The Google Code page for Keep My Opt-Outs describes the extension as a way to “permanently [opt] your browser out of online ad personalization via cookies.”

The extension works with Google-served ads as well as with ads from companies that have signed up with AboutAds.info.


Other Initiatives


Last month, Microsoft announced that IE 9 will include a way for users to create lists of sites or companies that are blocked from tracking their data. This is significant because of reports that Microsoft previously removed similar features from Internet Explorer 8 at the behest of online advertisers.

The features and plugins proposed by Google, Mozilla, Microsoft and others are a good start in making it easier for users to opt-out of online behavioral ads; however, these solutions will only work if advertisers and browser makers can work together in a cohesive way.

Photo courtesy of swanksalot

More About: advertising, Browsers, chrome, do not track list, Firefox, FTC, Google, IE9, microsoft, mozilla, privacy, trending

The latest beta of Firefox 4 — beta 9 for those of you counting at home — is now available to download.

The latest beta version of the venerable web browser features faster start-up, improved bookmarking and history functions and smoother complex animations. The Firefox team released the first Firefox 4 Beta back in July. The final 4.0 release is expected as early as next month.

The release notes for Firefox 4 Beta 9 are pretty sparse, which may indicate that major bugs notwithstanding, the next version offered might be a release candidate.

A few tightened user interface tweaks aside, Firefox 4 looks largely the same as it has the last few releases.

One of the issues that has prevented me from using previous Firefox 4 Beta releases on my main computer has been the lack of support for certain plugins and add-ons. With each release, developers are updating their wares for better compatibility, but there are still a few standouts (like Firebug) that aren’t yet supported.

Those quibbles aside, the new Firefox is significantly faster than its predecessors. Over Christmas, I installed Firefox 4 Beta 8 on my MacBook Pro and was impressed at the improvements in speed and performance. What little time I have spent with Beta 9 on my iMac indicates that the speed increases have continued.

One note for Mac users — if you are running Mac OS X 10.6, it’s likely that Netflix will not work in this release. There is a conflict between the 32-bit Silverlight plugin and the 64-bit Firefox 4. Use Chrome or Safari instead if you don’t want to go back to Firefox 3.6.x.

Firefox 4 is an important release for Mozilla. The open source browser may have surpassed IE in usage share in Europe, but it’s facing increased competition on all fronts. Google’s Chrome browser is approaching 10% market share and Microsoft is coming on strong with IE 9.

Moreover, the modern mobile browsing space — which is largely dominated by WebKit — is gaining in importance. Getting out a solid version of Firefox for the desktop and the mobile is crucial for Mozilla.

If you want to do your part to help, you can download the latest Firefox 4 Beta and put it through the paces. The new Feedback button makes it easy to report any problems or crashes and you can take the new interface for a test drive if you haven’t already.

What are your thoughts on Firefox 4 Beta 9? Let us know in the comments.

More About: browser, Firefox, Firefox 4, mozilla

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Mozilla is getting ready for the January semester of School of Webcraft, a 100% free developer training resource run in partnership with Peer 2 Peer University.

Last semester, the School of Webcraft offered 15 classes; now, Mozilla is trying to get around 30 classes going for the January semester.

Classes will be between six and 10 weeks long; they’ll revolve around topics relevant to web designers and developers, including HTML5, JavaScript and CSS. Previous classes have also included non-developer topics such as organic SEO. Requisite skill levels will run the gamut from novice to expert. The volunteer-run courses will begin on January 26, and proposals for new course ideas are still being accepted.

Students learn through a combination of free and open learning materials, online study groups and hands-on assignments that test their hacking skills.

If you’re a leader in the developer community, you can also step up and lead a course yourself. If you want to organize a class, you’ll get support from P2PU and Mozilla in the form of course design, materials, learning facilitation and other resources.

Registration opens on January 8; until then, you can sign up for the School of Webcraft e-mail list.

Mozilla believes that developer training is “both at the high school and university level… out of date, lousy and losing students.” Another problem is that younger learners simply don’t have access to good web dev learning resources. And certification training is expensive and often out of step with current practices.

By creating a completely free, open training ground for developers and would-be developers of all stripes, Mozilla hopes to remedy some of the problems surrounding technology education.

We fully support this mission; anything that will allow more people to become better informed about and more proficient in web development and related technologies is a win in our book.

Of course, we’d love to see more than just front-end and markup languages explored; but for that to happen, some knowledgeable devs are going to have to volunteer to teach their peers the basics (or not-so-basics) of other programming languages.

More About: developers, education, mozilla, school, training, trending

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