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.
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.
When it comes to browser performance, we tend to talk a lot about what browser developers like Microsoft, Google and Mozilla can do to render web pages faster and make complex web apps like Gmail run smoother. Especially in the mobile world, though, there is a level of optimization that's happening at the level of the actual chips that are responsible for making your phone or tablet tick. That optimization is happening both in the design of the chips, as well as how the operating system talks to them. Yesterday, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I had a chance to sit down with Sy Choudhury, who leads Qualcomm’s Web Technologies initiative. For the most part, our chat focused on what chip makers can do to improve the mobile browsing experience, as well as the increasing importance of HTML5 in the mobile world (HTML5, at its core, is a set of technologies that allow developers to create highly-interactive web applications that look and feel just like regular desktop software).
Qualcomm, which is mostly known for producing the processors and chipsets that run a larger percentage of the world's mobile phone, is working together closely with both the Android and Chrome teams at Google to make your browsing experience on your mobile phone or tablet better. The company, of course, is also working together with other vendors, including Microsoft, but most of the optimization work is currently being done on the Android platform.
Qualcomm is showing a number of impressive demos at the Mobile World Congress this week to demonstrate this work, including an Instagram-like photo-sharing application that lives in the browser. In another demo, the company is showing the difference between an HTML5-based game that has access to the graphics card and one that doesn't. Unsurprisingly, the one that doesn't use the tablet's graphics hardware directly features mediocre performance while the other runs just as smooth as a native app.
With Great Power Comes Worse Power Consumption
All this power, though, always comes with a trade-off – and more often than not, that trade-off is power consumption. For companies like Qualcomm and its partners, finding the right balance between those two poles isn't always easy. According to Choudhury, though, small tweaks can often make a big difference. Qualcomm, for example, changed how often the network chip shuts down when it is not in use and just a small change like this can lead to power savings of close to 7% under some circumstances.
Who Needs Apps When The Browser Can Do All Of This?
Qualcomm, of course, is also a member of the Core Mobile Web Platform Group Facebook announced at the Mobile World Congress earlier this week. In Choudhury's view, now that websites can access your phone's camera, display videos and render even games without the need for Flash and do so smoothly and without the user ever really having to think about what technology an app uses, there is almost no need for native apps anymore.
Opera just announced the next version of its mobile browser for Android and Symbian, as well as a developer version of its more stripped-down Opera Mini browser. While the update doesn't feature any major changes in the user interface, the Opera team has made numerous changes underneath the surface. Most importantly, Opera added support for its advanced HTML5 parser Ragnarok, which should make running web apps on your mobile phone quite a bit faster. This will also allow developers to create more sophisticated web applications that can run in your phone's browser.
Another feature that should speed up the browsing experience is Opera's newly announced support for using your phone's or tablet's graphics hardware to accelerate 3D content in your browser.
In addition, Opera added support for using an Android device's camera in the browser, as well as support for web standards like CSS3 and CORS.
Even if you don't own an Android or Symbian phone, you will soon be able to use Opera's web-based and desktop emulators to try it out yourself. If you have Opera 12 installed on your phone or tablet, also have a look at the company's demo site.
Opera Mini: Version 7 for iOS and a New Developer Version
As for Opera Mini, Opera today launched the final version of Opera Mini 7 for iOS, as well as a developer version – Opera calls these 'Opera Next.' The Next version is Opera's way of beta testing new features before they are officially released. So if you want to get an early look at some of the browser's features (this version brings smoother scrolling and a new bookmarking interface, for example, give Opera Mini Next a try. It's available for feature phones using Java, as well as Android, Blackberry and S60 phones.
Google makes extensive use of auto-correction in its search engine and often automatically displays results for the auto-corrected words when its algorithm is reasonably sure that it understands what your really meant to write. In Chrome, however, the built-in spell checker is not very smart and often displays non-sensical suggestions (or provides no suggestions at all). The latest developer version of Chrome, however, can now make use of Google's server-based spell checker, which greatly improves Chrome's default spelling suggestions.
Given that Google has to send data from your browser to its servers, this is an opt-in service.
If you are using the developer channel of Chrome, you will now see the option to "ask Google for suggestions" when you right-click on a misspelled word. Once this feature is turned on, Chrome will automatically go out and retrieve suggestions from Google's servers. This means that you sometimes have to wait a second before the right word appears.
In our tests, though, the suggestions coming from Google's online spelling service were generally better than those from Chrome's built-in spell checker. In many cases, for example, Chrome now actually showed suggestions for words that stumped the built-in spell checker.
Sending All Your Misspelled Words to Google
Depending on how worried you are about your privacy, this may obviously not be a feature for you. All your misspelled words, after all, will be send to Google's servers. Google's privacy page for Chrome doesn't currently explain how Google handles this data (likely because it's only in the developer version right now).
To install the developer version of Chrome, head over here and look for the right version for your operating system.
Google today updated the stable version of Chrome and introduced its redesigned New Tab page to those mainstream users who are not using the more cutting-edge release channels Google offers for its browser. In addition, Google also launched a redesigned app store for Chrome, which now features large images instead of the small icons that previously dominated the homepage.
New New Tab Page
The new New Tab page doesn’t come as a surprise to those who have been using Google’s Beta, Dev or Canary builds over the last few weeks. Whenever you open a new tab now, Google will show you thumbnails of your most often visited sites. You can also navigate to your apps from there as well. It’s worth noting that the early release channels of Chrome also feature a bookmark tab on the New Tab pages (though it isn’t functional right now). The New Tab page also allows you to reopen tabs you recently closed.
Redesigned Chrome Web Store
As for the Chrome Web Store, the changes are quite dramatic. The earlier version was a jumble of icons, ratings and different categories (you can still see it if you visit the site with Internet Explorer, Opera or Firefox). This new version is basically one large wall of images. As you scroll over the images, the thumnails flip over and a description of the app appears.
Discoverability in app stores has long been a major problem for developers and it remains to be seen if this new version of the Chrome Web Store will make things easier for developers. At first glance, it would seem the new layout will reward those apps that have flashy logos and screenshots, as the homepages for the various categories look like they are curated by Google.
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.
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.
Mozilla just released Firefox 4, the next generation of its popular Internet browser. This new version is not just significantly faster than Firefox 3, but it also features a new, highly streamlined interface and a number of new tools that should make Firefox 4 even more popular among power users.
There are lots of new features in the new version of Mozilla’s browser (plugin isolation on all platforms, support for modern web standards like HTML5, new security and privacy features, etc.), but here are the key new features of Firefox 4:
In Firefox 4, Mozilla’s designers worked to keep distractions to a minimum and reduce the interface clutter in favor of providing more screen estate for the Web itself.
Gone, for example, is the menu bar in the Windows version. Instead, similar to Chrome and Internet Explorer, all the options are now available in one menu and the tabs have moved up to the top of the window. Bookmarking, too, has become easier and faster and just takes one click now.
This doesn’t mean that Firefox 4 was dumbed down, though. A lot of cool functionality for power users is just a bit hidden but easily available. You can use the URL bar to switch between tabs, for example.
That said, though, I ran both the SunSpider and Kraken benchmark on Firefox 4 and compared it to the latest developer version of Chrome (11.0.696.16). On average (after three test runs on a Mac) Firefox 4 easily beat Chrome. (Kraken: 4211.7ms vs. 4963.5ms; SunSpider: 189.2ms vs. 212.5ms).
Benchmarks can only convey so much about how fast the browser feels, and most users won’t notice any significant differences between most modern browsers. Firefox 4 does feel significantly faster than any earlier version, though, and I can’t help but think that it also feels faster than Chrome now.
Most of us now work on multiple computers and Internet-connected devices every day, but it’s still surprisingly hard to keep bookmarks between these machines in sync. With Firefox Sync (formerly known as Weave), you can now easily keep all these machines in sync. All you have to do is type in your password (generated by Firefox) and Mozilla will keep your bookmarks in sync. Syncing to mobile versions of Firefox is coming soon, too.
It’s worth noting that Google Chrome offers a similar feature, too.
App tabs allow you to, as Mozilla puts it, “give a permanent home to frequently visited sites like Web mail, Twitter, Pandora or Flickr.” Your apps then live in small tabs on the left side of your tab bar.
These app tabs will also alert you when something has changed in the web app (like a newly arrived email). This doesn’t work perfectly for all apps, though. Firefox watched for the site’s title to change, which most web mail providers do, but most other sites don’t.
I prefer Mozilla’s implementation of this feature over Chrome’s, because it defaults to loading all the links you click on in the app tab in a new tab.
If you become a regular user of app tabs, also consider installing the Easy App Tabs plugin, which allows you to turn a regular tab into an app tab by simply double-clicking on any tab.
Installing Plugins Without Restart
Yes, other browser developers already offer this (and didn’t spend close to two years developing their software), but for Firefox’s power users, this is a major update. Developers have to support this feature, so not every add-on will install without restarts just yet, but there are already quite a few out there that do.
As Nightingale told me, 40% of Firefox users today have installed add-ons. Today, close to 80% of these add-ons are compatible with Firefox 4 and more compatible versions are coming online every day. The new built-in add-on manager also makes finding and installing interesting extensions a lot faster and easier.
Here is another feature mainly geared towards power users that stays out of the way if you don’t want to use it. Panorama allows you to visually organize your tabs into groups. You can, for example, open up a new group for the research you are doing and another one for your web mail. The two stay separate from each other. I know many people who love this feature, which made me include it here, but it’s not ideal for how I use the browser. Give it a try, though – it might just save you a lot of trouble and enhance your browsing experience.
Firefox 4’s official release date is tomorrow, but the final version of Mozilla’s latest browser is already available on the project’s FTP servers. Just pick the right version and language for your system from Mozilla’s directory (Windows, Linux or Mac), download the installer and you are ready to go. You can also use these links for direct downloads:
Uploading these files to the various servers that mirror Mozilla’s apps is part of the regular release process that ensures that the organization’s official servers won’t be overloaded once the official release data arrives. You can rest assured that these are indeed the official files.
It’s worth noting, though, that Mozilla’s outgoing director of Firefox Mike Beltzner points out that “Firefox 4 isn’t ready until www.mozilla.com/firefox says so!”
If you followed along during Firefox 4’s long and arduous development period, then the final release version doesn’t bring any surprises. Those who are still using Firefox 3, though, will surely find version 4 to be a faster and more efficient browser. We will have a full review of Firefox 4 tomorrow.
WebGL – a standard for running 3D graphics in the browser – has been around for a while, but the Khronos Group, which has been chaperoning the process of finalizing the WebGL standard, just announced the final version of the new standard. WebGL brings hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to browsers without the need for plugins and should enable developers and designers to create rich 3D-enabled experiences in the browser. The WebGL working group includes industry heavy-weights like Google, Mozilla, Opera, Apple, Qualcomm, AMD and Nvidia.
Both hardware manufacturers like Qualcomm, which will integrate WebGL into its Snapdragon platform and browser vendors are embracing WebGL. According to Opera’s lead graphics developer Tim Johansson, “WebGL will finally free web developers from the confines of 2D without the need for a plug-in. Once WebGL becomes pervasive, we can look forward to a new era in creativity on the Web. Opera is excited to be part of the WebGL initiative. We intend to support WebGL in our browsers, whether on computers, mobile phones or TVs.”
A WebGL demo.
As WebGL leverages the OpenGL standard that is already supported by the vast majority of graphics cards, developers don’t have to worry about hardware compatibility. Most browser vendors are also on board. WebGL is already supported by nightly versions of Apple’s WebKit and Firefox, as well as in Google Chrome and in a preview version of Opera which the company announced just a few days ago. To see how well your browser supports this standard, just head over to the Khronos Group’s demo repository. Google’s impressive Body Browser, too, uses the WebGL standard.
Where is Microsoft?
The one company that is missing here, though, is Microsoft, which is just about to release the next version of its Internet Explorer. As of now, Internet Explorer 9 is not scheduled to include WebGL support.
Opera, the Norwegian browser developer, just announced a touch-optimized version of its browser that it will demo at CES. This new browser, which is optimized for tablets and netbooks with touchscreens. In its demo, Opera is showing off a first demo of the software on an Android device.
Details about the new browser are quite sparse and the demo doesn’t offer any additional details, but it’s good to see that the company is investing in this market as well. Opera already has lots of expertise in developing for touch-enabled phones, so making the move to tablets is a logical next step.
According to Christen Krogh, the company’s chief development officer, “In 2011, tablets are a new must-have. […] Opera for tablets brings the same trusted Internet experience to tablets and netbook PCs as users have come to love on their mobile phones and desktops.”
Opera has been through somewhat of a renaissance in the last year.