SiliconFilter

What to Expect from Firefox in 2012: SPDY, Quiet Updates, Better Web Apps

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Last year, Mozilla managed to get Firefox back on track. While the long delay of Firefox 4 gave competitors like the up-and-coming Google Chrome a chance to gain quite a bit of market share, Mozilla adapted to the changing environment and switched to a Chrome-like rapid-release schedule that is focused on releasing a new version every six weeks. Given these short release cycles, it's good to keep the larger picture in view sometimes and, thankfully, Mozilla today provided us with a nice overview of what we can expect from Firefox for the rest of the year.

The organization has discussed most of these plans before, but it's good to take another look at what's in store for the popular browser.

A SPDYer Browser

Among the highlights Firefox's users can look forward to is default support for Google's SPDY protocol that speeds up the communication between your browser and web servers. In the current version (11), SPDY is not enable by default, but you can turn it on by browsing to about:config and doing a search for spdy.enabled.

In addition, Mozilla also plans to turn on HTTP pipelining by default. This allows the browser to download different elements of a site in parallel, which should speed things up, especially for sites that don't yet support the SPDY protocol.

Silent Updates

Mozilla also plans to bring silent updates to Firefox. This means, you will never have to see another update dialog again. Instead, Firefox will just update itself automatically, just like Chrome currently does. The development team plans to launch this feature in version 13.

Better Web Apps

As for web apps, Mozilla wants to integrate them more deeply into the browser. This means support for Mozilla's online app store, which is scheduled to launch later this year, but also a lot of work on the backend, including support for Mozilla's identity solution, an install process for web apps and the ability for apps to run in the background.

This, of course, is only the tip of the iceberg. You can find a full list of the features Mozilla has planned for this year here.



9:34 am


Coming to Firefox in 2012: New Look, New Home Tab, Focus Mode and a Windows Metro Version

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If the popularity of Google's Chrome browser has shown anything, it's that competition in the browser market is a very good thing for consumers. To counter Chrome's seemingly unstoppable march towards dominance in the browser market, Mozilla has set itself an ambitious roadmap for Firefox in 2012. As part of this roadmap, Firefox will introduce a new look, a Chrome-like new tab page and a dedicated Windows 8 Metro version.

A "Web-Wide People-Centric Identity System" and "A Complete Web Apps Ecosystem"

In a statement attached to the roadmap, the Firefox team lays out some of its overall strategies for approaching the future of Firefox. Most importantly, Mozilla acknowledges that "the Web is more than just the desktop browser." Because of this, the group plans to introduce a "web-wide people-centric identity system, a complete web apps ecosystem, and a no-compromises mobile browser" in 2012. Mozilla, of course, has long been working on prototypes for its identity system and announced plans for an app store-like experience for web apps (again, something Chrome already offers) more than a year ago now. Until now, though, none of these have actually arrived as full-grown products and we've only seen prototypes so far.

New Features for Firefox in 2012

Overall, 2012 promises to be an interesting year for Firefox and one that promises to introduce a number of highly anticipated and useful features.

Among these are an updated look, an updated and speedier JavaScript engine called IonMonkey, and support for a distraction-free reading mode similar to the "Reader" feature in Safari.

Here are some of the highlights from the roadmap:[list]

  • Add-ons Sync: Firefox Sync makes it easy to move between computers and devices. In addition to syncing passwords, bookmarks, and history between Firefox installs, users are going to be able to sync add-ons.
  • Firefox Hotfix: There are small issues that can occasionally affect Firefox users after a release. Correcting those small issues should not require a full Firefox update. With a new hotfix system, Mozilla can patch minor issues in Firefox without requiring a browser restart.
  • Proof of concept for Firefox in Windows 8 Metro: In order to deliver a compelling Firefox for Windows 8 Metro experience, we need to understand what's possible. A technology proof of concept is the first step. This is not a Alpha or a Beta, but should demonstrate the feasibility of Firefox in Windows 8 Metro. (Timing here is dependent on when Microsoft releases their Windows 8 consumer preview and developer documentation.)
  • Firefox Home Tab additions: Firefox's start page, AKA Firefox Home Tab, is where users start their browsing session and where they land when they've closed their last tab. In addition to easy search, Firefox Home will become a launch point for managing all of your Firefox data
  • Silent Update: The Firefox update process will be moved to the background and Windows admin passwords and/or UAC prompts will be removed. Also, users with the rare incompatible extension will have a gentler upgrade process.
  • Web Apps Marketplace integration: Firefox Home will offer a launcher for the Web Apps Marketplace and promotion for personalized app recommendations.
  • Firefox Focus/Reader Mode: Despite the rise of multi-media on the Web, reading is still the most common web activity. We will make reading long-form content a wonderful experience with a user-activated re-formatting and re-styling of the page that puts focus on the content rather than ads and navigation.
  • IonMonkey: The next generation of the Firefox JavaScript engine, code-named IonMonkey, will bring dramatic improvements to JavaScript performance making Web applications even faster.[/list]

 



9:47 am


Adobe Puts Flash for Firefox in a Sandbox

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Love it or hate it, but Adobe's Flash plugin is likely one of the world's most widely distributed pieces of software. Given its popularity, it doesn't come as a surprise that Flash is also popular with hackers, who do their best to exploit flaws in it. Chrome and Internet Explorer 7+ users can already rest assured that hackers can't use Flash to compromise their browser, as the plugin runs in a sandboxed mode on Google's and Microsoft's browsers. Soon, Firefox users will get access to the same technology, as Adobe today announced the first public beta of its new Flash Player sandbox for Firefox.

With this new version of the Flash Player, Adobe is following the same playbook it used for making the Adobe Reader safer by implementing a sandbox and protected mode. Since the launch of Adobe Reader X, the company notes, there hasn't been a single successful exploit against it in the wild. According to Peleus Uhley, a senior security researcher within the Secure Software Engineering team at Adobe, Flash's "sandboxed process is restricted with the same job limits and privilege restrictions as the Adobe Reader Protected Mode implementation."

It's worth noting that it has taken Adobe and Mozilla quite a while to bring this sandboxed version of Flash to market. Internet Explorer 7, after all, has had the privilege of running Flash in Vista's and Windows 7's Protected Mode since 2006.

For now, the beta only works for Firefox 4 and later and on Windows Vista and Windows 7. You can download the beta here.



2:59 pm


Mozilla Launches Firefox 11 Beta with Add-on Sync, SPDY Support and a 3D Page Inspector

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Just a few days after the official launch of Firefox 10, Mozilla today also announced the latest Firefox beta for version 11 of the groups' popular browser. Most of the new features in this beta are geared toward developers, including a 3D debugging tool and a new style editor. For regular users, this beta features add-on sync, which lets you sync your installed add-ons between different machines, as well as an updated migration tool which now also features support for switching from Chrome. The Firefox 11 beta now also supports the SPDY protocol, which was designed as the successor to the ubiquitous HTTP and which can significantly speed up page load times.

SPDY, which was conceived by Google, uses a number of techniques to speed up the file transfer between a server and your browser (including by using fewer connections and downloading images in parallel, for example). Most of Google's sites already support SPDY (as does Google Chrome) and the number of sites and services that utilize this new protocol continues to grow quickly.

Note: as usual, please keep in mind that this is a beta version. It's pretty stable at this point, but don't be upset if it crashes.

3D Page Inspector

It's not often that we talk about tools for web developers that utilize 3D (WebGL, in this case), but Mozilla now lets you zoom around any website in a 3D tilt mode that makes it easier to discover elements that are hidden or off the page.

Page inspector 3d

Less visual, but nevertheless a welcome addition to Firefox's toolkit is the new Style Editor. With this tool, developers can now easily experiment with chances to a page's CSS stylesheet and see these reflected on the screen immediately. Google offers a similar feature for Chrome as well.

NewImage



3:10 pm


Firefox 10 Launches: Promises Fewer Add-On Compatibility Issues, Enables Fullscreen API

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Now that Mozilla has fully embraced its rapid-release cycle, an update from version 9 to 10 of its popular Firefox browser isn't really an event anymore. Nevertheless, version 10, which launched today, brings a number of welcome new features with it, as well as the usual bug fixes and performance enhancements.

Virtually all of the changes in this new version are under the hood. The interface has not really changed – with one small exception. The forward button is now hidden until you actually navigate back from a page. This is definitely just a small change, though, and we will still have to wait until Firefox 12 to see the new "new tab" page appear in the Firefox release channel release.

If you are already a Firefox user, your browser will soon prompt you to update automatically. Version 10 is now also available for download here.

Fewer Add-On Compatibility Issues

What has changed, though, is the way Firefox 10 handles add-on compatibility issues when you upgrade the browser. Until now, users had to hope that the developers of their favorite add-ons ensured that they were compatible and marked as such. Now that Mozilla is releasing a new version of its browser every six weeks, though, that was becoming an issue for developers and users.

Mozilla's own add-on repository can automatically check the compatibility of most of the add-ons hosted on its servers. The problem, however, is that about 75% of add-ons are not hosted by Mozilla. Firefox 10 now assumes that most of these are actually compatible when you upgrade your browser. Thanks to this, users won't have to hope that a plugin's developer will constantly ensure that a plugin is up to date.

You can find more details about how Mozilla does this here.

Also New: Full Screen API

In addition, the new version also now offers developers a full screen API that allows them to build web apps that can run full screen. Game developers will likely be among the first to embrace this ability, though Mozilla also expects online video experiences and presentation software to make extensive use of this feature as well.

 



8:47 am


Google and Mozilla Renew Their Search Royalty Deal for at Least Three More Years

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Mozilla, the organization behind the popular Firefox browser, is a non-profit organization and that status allows it to run experiments that a for-profit organization couldn't quite justify to its shareholders. It still has to make money, though, and the majority of the organization's income (84%) comes from a revenue-sharing partnership with Google. This cooperation ended in November, though. Given Google's own efforts in the browser market with Chrome, many wondered if Google would opt out of renewing its deal with Mozilla. We don't need to worry about the (financial) future of Firefox anymore, though, as Mozilla just announced that it has renewed its search relationship with Google for at least three additional years.

The exact details of agreement weren't disclosed, but both companies were obviously put into a somewhat awkward position, as Mozilla now had to make a deal with its biggest competitor and Google had to decided on whether it wanted to continue to help the only real competitor to Chrome. In the end, though, Google would have lost a lot of goodwill if it had decided against this deal.

It's not clear if Mozilla was also in talks with Microsoft to make a similar deal that would have made Bing the default search engine on Firefox. The company did release a special edition of its browser with Bing as the default in October, though.



8:13 pm


It’s Time for Apple to Allow Real Browser Competition on iOS

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Yesterday, Google launched its redesigned search app for the iPad. It features a smart, innovative design and could, with just a few extra features like bookmarks, easily become the best browser alternative to Safari on iOS. The reality, though, is that while Apple allows browser apps like the Dolphin Browser that use iOS’s built-in WebKit framework or Opera, which renders all the content on its own servers to get around Apple’s rules, none of these can be used as the default browsers on iOS. Whenever you click on a link in an email, for example, you can’t set iOS to open Opera instead of Safari. Because of this, there is almost no incentive for users to even try a third-party browser on iOS, as the system will constantly route them to Safari anyway.

Apple’s Own Browser: Adequate but not Innovative

Apple’s own browser is perfectly adequate, but as the Google app shows, users are missing out on innovations on all levels, including interface design and faster access to modern web standards on their mobile devices.

Safari on the iPad, for example, uses the same way to handle tabs as on the desktop instead of using a design that really makes use of the iPad’s touch features.

Third-Party Browsers Can’t Compete Unless Users Can Make them the Default Choice

The Google search app shows that interesting, touch-centric browser interfaces are possible. For Google, of course, search is the central metaphor for browsing the web, but you could just replace the current search screen at the center of the app with bookmarks and links to web apps and have a great browser app.

Mozilla was late to the mobile browser game, but now it’s doing a few creative things with Firefox on Android (and lets you use plugins, for example). Opera, too, is constantly pushing the envelope with its mobile browsers. iOS users, however, are more or less cut off from all of this innovation. Sure, you can install interesting apps like Dual Browser or Atomic Browser, but chances are, you will never use them because unlike Android, you can’t switch the default browser away from Safari on iOS.

Will Apple Ever Relinquish Total Control over the OS?

Apple, of course, wants to keep total control over your iOS experience. For most apps that are alternatives to built-in iOS apps (email, streaming music, to-do lists etc.), it doesn’t really matter that other apps can’t be set as the default. For browsers, though, it’s really the only way they will ever get widespread use.

Locking the browser down made sense for Apple in the early days of iOS, when apps weren’t even on the roadmap yet. Now, however, this policy feels more like it stifles innovation than that it protects users.



4:57 pm


Firefox Turns 7: Here are Some Designs That Never Made It

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The first stable release of Mozilla’s Firefox appeared exactly 7 years ago on November, 9 2004. Quite a few things have changed for Mozilla and Firefox since then, including the arrival of interactive web apps that most developers and designers were only dreaming about 7 years ago. Instead of looking back to how Firefox changed over the years, though, Alex Faaborg, the principle designer on the Firefox team posted some of hts design ideas for the browser that never made the cut.

As he puts it, these are some of his “crazier concepts that we never rolled out, and highlights some of the stranger scenes that we have on the cutting room floor.”

Without further ado, here are some of the highlights:

1) A theme for the Firefox private browsing mode (somehow that one never made it into the stable releases):

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2) A fluffy pie menu (Faaborg: “But what I really like about this particular pie menu isn’t what it does, but how it feels.  It’s fluffy, it’s soft, it’s friendly.  It’s like interacting with a happy cloud.”)

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3) Immersive full screen mode (it’s a shame this design never made it. The full screen mode in most browsers still doesn’t feel right)

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4) Location bar as a graphical command line (I gather this one would have been too advanced for most users):

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5) New interfaces for searching and bookmarking (I would love to see those in a future version of Firefox):

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You can find these images, including a discussion of each of them as well as more examples on Faaborg’s personal blog.

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7:52 pm


Mozilla Launches Custom Firefox Version with Bing as Default Search Engine

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Since its earliest days, Firefox always used Google as its default search engine. Chances are, this won’t change anytime soon, but a short little announcement on the Firefox blog this morning will surely get some pundits to speculate if Microsoft’s Bing could one day become the browser’s search engine of choice. That’s because starting today, Mozilla will offer a custom version of Firefox with Bing to its users. This custom version uses Bing as the default search engine in both the search box and the “AwesomeBar.” Bing.com will also be the default homepage and chances are that Microsoft and Mozilla have worked out a way to split revenue from this venture, though the official announcement doesn’t make any mention of this.

Bing has been a search option for Firefox since last October. Mozilla clearly doesn’t want you to read too much into this announcement. In its blog post, the Firefox team notes that there are “nearly 20 customized versions of Firefox distributed globally by partners including Bing, United Internet, Twitter, Yahoo! and Yandex.” Bing then is just another one in this series of custom versions and I doubt the Twitter or Yahoo versions of Firefox are seeing record downloads (just try finding them in the first place).

Given that Google’s Chrome is quickly gaining market share, though, and has now become a formidable competitor for Firefox, it’s hard to imagine that the folks over at Mozilla haven’t thought about switching allegiances to Microsoft. I doubt this will happen anytime soon, though, as Mozilla currently needs the income its gets from Google to survive. If Microsoft decides to match this, though, things may change, of course, and maybe this custom version is just a way of testing what that cooperation would look like…



4:43 pm


Firefox 7 Has Arrived: Faster and Leaner

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Mozilla today launched the latest stable version of Firefox. While some enterprise users are not very happy with the new, faster release schedule for Firefox (this is the fourth stable release this year), every new version has brought worthwhile advantages and Firefox 7 is no exception. This new version doesn’t just include many developer-centric enhancements, but if you are a regular Firefox user, you will be happy to hear that the new Firefox now uses significantly less memory. It’s also faster, especially if you tend to keep many tabs open at the same time.

Other speed enhancements include support for hardware-accelerating some HTML5 functions that will make games and other interactive graphics run faster and smoother.

Calling Home

In addition to all of this, Firefox 7 is also the first stable release to support Mozilla’s new telemetry feature. With this, users can opt in to report their anonymized usage data back to the developers. This, says Mozilla, will allow its developers to measure Firefox performance in the real world better and help them optimize future releases. Before you worry about this, though, it’s important to note that Mozilla will only collect some very basic information about your system: memory usage, CPU core count, cycle collection times, Firefox startup speed.

Getting the Update

If you are already using Firefox, your browser will update itself soon (or take a look at the About menu and see if the update is already ready to be applied there). If you want to download the latest version manually, just head over here.

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5:42 pm


The Need for Less Speed: Firefox to Get Extended Support Releases

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Ever since Firefox switched to its rapid release process after the launch of Firefox 4, users in corporate environments have been complaining about how often Mozilla now updates the browser. To appease these users – and the administrators who keep their computers running – Mozilla has now proposed to add Extended Support Releases to its release cycle that will continue to see maintenance updates for about 42 weeks after their release.

For consumers, a rapid release schedule means earlier access to useful features without having to wait for month until a full x.0 release is ready to go out. Currently, Mozilla pushes out a new version every six week. For business users, however, these fast updates can be a major hassle, though. In an enterprise setting, after all, browsers have to be tested extensively before they can be released to users and apps have to be certified to work with those browsers.

As CNET’s Stephen Shankland points out, Mozilla current strategy risks “driving slower-moving organizations into the arms of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer.”

Firefox slow updates cycle

For now, it’s important to note that this scheme is only a proposal and it remains to be seen if these slower updates will be enough appease enterprise admins. Even a 42-week cycle (including a 12-week overlap to give users time to upgrade), after all, is much faster than Microsoft’s current update schedule and the largest group of potential users here are the companies that have only now started to switch to Windows 7.



4:03 pm


Mozilla Officially Launches Firefox 6

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Mozilla today officially launched Firefox 6, the latest stable version of its popular browser. Since its switch to a more frequent release schedule, Mozilla has already pushed out a number of releases, so version numbers themselves are becoming significantly less useful at this point and most of the updates are rather small. Indeed, users who expect this to be a major update will be sorely disappointed as Mozilla only made minor tweaks to the user interface and didn’t add any major new features in this new version besides a new permissions tool for site-specific permissions.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plethora of bug fixes and new features for developers in Firefox 6. Regular users, however, won’t notice much of a difference if they were already using Firefox 5 before. Most of your addons should also continue to work just fine. While earlier updates often broke many of the most popular updates, this has become less and less of an issue over the last few releases.

What’s New

Here is Mozilla’s official list of what’s new in Firefox 6: [list]

  • The address bar now highlights the domain of the website you’re visiting
  • Streamlined the look of the site identity block
  • Added support for the latest draft version of WebSockets with a prefixed API
  • Added support for EventSource / server-sent events
  • Added support for window.matchMedia
  • Added Scratchpad, an interactive JavaScript prototyping environment
  • Added a new Web Developer menu item and moved development-related items into it
  • Improved usability of the Web Console
  • Improved the discoverability of Firefox Sync
  • Reduced browser startup time when using Panorama
  • Fixed several stability issues
  • Fixed several security issues [/list]

Firefox 6 for Mobile

In addition to the desktop version, Mozilla also launched a new version of Firefox for Android. This new version features a slightly updated user interface and was tweaked to work better on tablets.

Get New Versions Earlier with the Beta and Aurora Channel

Intrepid users who want an early look at new Firefox builds can also switch to the Beta and Aurora channel (or even the Nightly channel if you feel really adventurous). This way, you can get new features even earlier and help Mozilla by reporting issues with these test builds.



3:51 pm


Browser Version Numbers Are Now Irrelevant – And That’s a Good Thing

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Mozilla is getting ready to officially launch Firefox 6 tomorrow. That’s less than two months after the release of Firefox 5 and not even half a year since the launch of Firefox 4. Indeed, there is now some talk in the Firefox community to get rid of version numbersin the user interface altogether. That’s not a bad idea. Users really shouldn’t have to worry about which version of a given browser they are running and those version numbers have now become mostly irrelevant anyway.

Google Chrome is now at versions 13, 14 and 15, depending which channel you are using (stable, beta, dev). I’m currently running Chrome version 14.0.825.0 dev and the Nightly version of Firefox (8.0a1). To be honest, even though I follow this business pretty closely, I have no idea how those versions are different from Chrome 13 and FF 7.

Both Mozilla and Google are using a rapid release cycle schedule to push out new versions on a set schedule. Instead of waiting for every major feature to be ready, new features are pushed out whenever they are ready. Opera and Microsoft are still using a more traditional release schedules, but even Opera now features a developer channel (Opera Next) to push out betas quickly and I wouldn’t be surprised if even Microsoft would switch to a more agile release schedule after Internet Explorer 10 (though its strong presence in the enterprise may make this impossible).

You Shouldn’t Have to Care About Browser Versions

At this point, there is no good reason why an average user should have to worry about keeping a browser up to date and given the current version number inflation, these numbers have completely lost their meaning anyway.

While large enterprises may hate this, as they like to have exact control over what runs on their users’ desktops, users can only profit from the rapid advancement in browser technology. There really isn’t any good reason why your average mainstream user should have to worry about which browser version is  installed on a given machine. Both Chrome and Firefox already push out updates as needed – though Firefox still pops up a dialog when a new version is ready while Google just installs it in the background.

I can’t remember a new browser version really breaking anything on the Internet these days – though I gather the moment I type this, I will get some email about banking sites that still won’t run unless you use Internet Explorer 7. New version tend to add more stuff but rarely deprecate an old feature. Except for developers, users don’t have to really worry about that. If a website makes use of these new features, that’s a good thing – and it can only help developers if more users are able to make use of these advanced features.

One Exception: Major Interface Changes

From a user’s perspective, all those changes that happen behind the scene and keep them secure on the net or speed up the browser are mostly irrelevant anyway. The only time most mainstream users care about a major update is when the user interface changes. For the large segment of users who actually have to invest time into learning how to use a browser, that is indeed an issue developers have to think about and that would call for a pause in the automatic update procedure.

 



11:29 pm


Firefox 7 Promises to Use Up to 50% Less Memory

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A few months ago, Mozilla started a project called MemShrink that aims to make Firefox a leaner browser that uses less memory. Now, it looks like Firefox 7, which is scheduled to arrive as a beta version later this month, will be the first version of the popular browser to see the benefits of this technology.

According to Mozilla developer Nicholas Nethercote, Firefox 7 uses about 20% to 30% less memory than its predecessors, and sometimes as much as 50% less depending on individual usage patterns. The Firefox team also managed to clamp down on memory leakage and the browser’s memory usage will now remain stable, even if you leave your browser open over night.

With the arrival of Google’s Chrome, Firefox – which was long the forerunner in terms of browser innovation – suddenly looked rather bloated. Indeed, according to Nethercote, Firefox 4 added so many new features and technologies that its memory usage increased and slowed the browser down. memory_usage_firefox

It’s About More Than Just Cutting Down on Bloat

It’s important to note that this is not just about reducing memory usage, though. There are a number of other benefits to this project as well, as using less memory also means fewer crashes and speed enhancements. This, says Nethercote, is especially important for users who are running Firefox on 32bit Windows systems, where applications are “typically restricted to only 2GB of virtual memory.”

Now that Mozilla has switched to a more Chrome-like rapid-release cycle for Firefox, the benefits of projects like MemShrink can make it into the final product a lot faster. If you can’t wait until the release of Firefox 7 – or if you feel especially adventurous – you can always run the Aurora and Beta channels, of course, and get an early look at the next version of Firefox.



4:00 pm


Firefox 6 Now in Alpha: Introduces New Developer and Privacy Tools

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Mozilla’s new rapid release schedule remains on track. Firefox 5 is now in beta and, right on schedule, Firefox 6 is now entering its development cycle. The next version of Firefox will introduce a number of new tools for both regular users and developers. The alpha version of Firefox 6 Mozilla launched today introduces a new experimental privacy feature called the Data Management Window, an enhanced add-ons manager and some new features for Panorama. For developers, Mozilla is introducing a new feature for quickly building and testing JavaScript snippets in the browser, as well as enhancements to the Web Console and a new Web Developer menu that makes it easier to access these tools from the Firefox menu button. (more…)



8:32 pm