Mozilla announced Tuesday that the first beta version of Firefox 4, the latest iteration of its browser, is ready for downloading and testing.
The beta has several new features, including privacy and speed enhancements.
Mozilla plans to issue new beta versions every two to three weeks, modifying the browser in response to beta users’ comments.
Firefox 4 Beta 1 has a new add-on manager, supports Google’s WebM format and fixes flaws in some Web standards that could expose users’ browser history, Mozilla said.
Google launched WebM, an open standard for compressed video content, in May.
Mozilla has moved the tabs to the top, changing the browser’s look. The beta replaces the Menu bar on Windows 7 and Windows Vista PCs with a single Firefox button. These changes, Mozilla said, will soon find their way into the Linux and Mac versions of the browser as well.
The crash protection first introduced in Firefox 3.6.4, released in April, is included in Firefox 4 Beta 1. When a plug-in crashes or freezes, Firefox users can resume browsing by just refreshing the page.
Firefox 4 Beta 1 has improved responsiveness at start-up and during page loads, Mozilla added.
The beta also includes Mozilla’s Jetpack software development kit (SDK). This makes it easier for authors to create add-ons that don’t require users to restart their browsers to install.
Other features include webSockets, which let developers build real time online interactions such as gaming and chat apps; support for new CSS3 (Cascading Style Sheet 3) features; and Web Console, an experimental analysis tool that lets users look into the guts of dynamic websites.
In the future, Mozilla will speed up the browser through the use of various technologies such as hardware graphics acceleration and more asynchronous input/output.
Firefox 4 will include a feature that will let users synchronize their settings, passwords, bookmarks, history, open tabs and other customizations across multiple devices.
“As we look at new devices accessing the Web — the iPad, smartphones, and now there’s talk about putting 3G on mobile game consoles — browser technology needs to be more than an experience you can just run on your PC,” Jim McGregor, chief technology strategist at In-Stat, pointed out.
“There’s only one Web, and you’ve got to be able to have the Web experience no matter what device you’re on,” McGregor told LinuxInsider. “Browsers need to be integrated more into this type of world where they’re an enabler across different types of platforms and not just an experience on one device.”
Quality Is Number One?
Firefox 4 may provide Mozilla’s browser the overhaul it needs to remain a player in the browser market.
“Firefox has been great — it’s easy to use, it’s updated quickly, but as of late, they’ve had problems where they issued something that didn’t work well because of the upgrade,” In-Stat’s McGregor said.
“Firefox has been crashing a lot more lately,” McGregor remarked. “I hope Firefox 4 is going to be an improvement because I’m tired of the browser shutting down on me.”
Making the Future Real
Apart from robustness issues, there’s the question of whether or not Mozilla can fulfill its vision of making Firefox run across multiple devices.
“That’s a challenge,” McGregor said. PC-based browsers include many features that have to be stripped out if they are to run on mobile devices, and a lot of work needs to be done behind the scenes if a browser is to run equally well across desktops and mobile units, he pointed out.
“The idea of being able to keep your browser synced across a number of devices would be appreciated if Mozilla could do it reliably,” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, remarked. “I just wonder if they have the resources to do this.”
Mozilla’s challenges go beyond the technology.
“Google has been mining the Firefox team’s talent, and Mozilla’s difficulty for awhile has been capturing and holding good talent,” Enderle told LinuxInsider.
Mozilla did not respond to requests for comment by press time.