Firefox 5: Track Me, Just Don’t Track Me

The Mozilla Foundation launched a beta version of its fifth edition of the Firefox Web browser Monday — just eight weeks after it rolled out Firefox 4.

This includes a mobile version for Android as well as versions for Windows, Mac and Linux desktops.

Desktop and mobile versions have a Do Not Track privacy feature, and the desktop version’s features include a channel switcher that lets users switch between Firefox’s Aurora, Beta and Release channels.

Firefox 5 includes a location-aware browsing feature, a move that might seem surprising given the current Congressional grilling of Google and Apple over data privacy.

The final version of Firefox 5 is scheduled for rollout the week of June 21.

Firefox 5’s Channel Feature

The desktop version of the Firefox 5 beta includes a channel switcher and performance and stability enhancements. It also supports Mozilla’s new CSS animations standard.

CSS animations let users animate transitions from one CSS style configuration to another.

The channel switcher lets Windows, Mac and Linux desktop users move between Firefox’s Aurora, Beta and Release channels to test features at different levels of development, quality and polish.

Mozilla added the Aurora channel to its existing Nightly, Beta and Final Release channels for the desktop version of Firefox in mid-April. Aurora releases come before beta and may not be as stable as beta or final releases.

The mobile version recently got a beta channel to Firefox in addition to the nightly test builds and final release channels. It might get an Aurora channel soon.

Other Firefox 5 Features

Firefox also added an opt-in location-aware browsing feature that can improve the browsing experience by, for example, returning maps of the area to users.

Mozilla’s first mobile release of Firefox 5 is an Android version of the browser.

Both the desktop and mobile versions of Firefox 5 have a Do Not Track feature that lets users opt out of online behavioral tracking.

The Android version of the browser has performance enhancements that speed up page loads, especially on 3G networks.

Mozilla spokesperson Shannon Prior declined to answer specific questions, pointing TechNewsWorld to the Firefox 5 FAQ page.

Mozilla and Privacy

Congress has been grilling Apple and Google for the past few weeks about data privacy, so is Firefox perhaps putting itself in danger by including location awareness in Firefox 5?

“GPS-enabled location awareness is part of numerous technologies,” Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, told TechNewsWorld.

“Cellphones have allowed location tracking for years, and if you use a Garmin or TomTom directional device or drive a car equipped with [GM’s] OnStar [service], you’re being tracked in a comprehensive manner,” he added.

“So long as the location-aware feature is opt-in, I don’t think there is a problem,” opined Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group.

The inclusion of the Do Not Track feature in browsers is not new, although perhaps Firefox 5 for Android is the first mobile browser with this feature.

“This is becoming a standard feature in all current-generation browsers,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “People just don’t want strangers to know where they’ve been.”

How that will play out against the location-awareness feature is yet to be seen, as it’s not clear whether enabling Do Not Track will impact the functioning of Firefox 5’s location awareness capability.

Stepping Up the Pace

Mozilla has stepped up the pace of its releases in an attempt to keep up with Google and Microsoft.

Given that Firefox is created by volunteers while the other two browsers are produced by cash-rich vendors, can the Mozilla Foundation keep up the cracking pace?

“So far, the volunteers have done a very good job, though Firefox 5 missed the boat on a few crucial features, including support for Adobe Flash,” Pund-IT’s King said. “Given the money and effort that Microsoft is putting into Internet Explorer and the uptake of Apple products, the Firefox community will have to keep up or risk being left behind.”

Mozilla has “lost a lot of talent to Google,” but doesn’t have any choice except to maintain its cracking pace, Enderle pointed out.

Another reason for speeding up rollouts is the problem of security.

“Hackers aren’t sitting still,” Enderle said. This speed is part of the world we live in, and those that fail to keep up will likely pay a very high price in terms of security breaches.”

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