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Firefox 3.5: How Soon and How Big a Deal?

Firefox 3.0 is not quite a year old, but users are already clamoring for Firefox 3.5. So where is it, and what is it all about?

In an interview at the Mozilla Toronto office, Mike Belzner, director of Firefox and the person responsible for Firefox releases, explained what is going on with the Firefox 3.5 release process and how Mozilla has improved since the 3.0 release last year. In a nutshell, Mozilla developers are now building better software faster than ever.

"We managed to develop Firefox 3.5 in 12 months; compare that to the development cycle on Firefox 3, which was two and a half years," Beltzner told InternetNews.com. "The amount of improvement that we've been able to put into the platform and the speed we've been able to execute as a distributed open source engineering organization is something we consider to be one of the better accomplishments of Firefox 3.5."

There are good reasons why users are already eager for the next version of Firefox. For one, in 2008, Mozilla had planned for a 3.1 release to be issued within six months of the Firefox 3 release. The 3.1 release had its first Alpha release last summer, went through three betas, then was renamed Firefox 3.5 for the beta 4 release.

A final release of Firefox 3.5 could be out by the end of the month.

According to Mozilla's own test data, the 3.5 release is approximately three times faster than the Firefox 3.0 release, and ten times faster than the Firefox 2.0 release. Firefox 3.5 also includes new HTML 5 support for video, offline storage and CSS Web fonts. There is also a new private browsing mode and improvements to tabs too.

"We've managed to prove that you can build open source software that continually gets faster, better and it doesn't need to take a long time to ship improvements to users," Beltzner said.

While the Firefox 3.5 browser is still not in its final release format yet, technically speaking, Beltzner noted that there are some 800,000 daily users of Firefox 3.5 already. In total, Mozilla counts its Firefox browser usage to be over 270 million users.

Firefox 3.1, 3.5 and 4.0

Firefox 3.1 was initially supposed to be just a bunch of small fixes to Firefox 3 and open video. Along the way the scope changed. Mozilla developers added in the new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine, which is a competitive effort to Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) V8 and Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) Safari's Nitro JavaScript engines.

"TraceMonkey was a task that, based on our traditional models of execution, would have taken us a year to a year and a half to implement," Beltzner said. "We realized that we've gotten way better at producing software as an open source organization, so we re-scoped and decided that there was no reason to rush out a version of Firefox that was not compelling, so let's make Firefox 3.5 fantastic."

Beltzner said the development process at Mozilla has improved just since Firefox 3.0 was built. There is improved communication with greater use of wikis and other collaborative tools. Mozilla has also improved its Tinderbox system for build and test tracking.

"A lot of the changes to our speed have also been around how we act as a community around software development because we know that development is happening 24 hours a day, and if you don't have good communications mechanisms and processes it's not going to work out," he said.

With 3.5 looking like a compelling upgrade, the question arises, why didn't Mozilla just name the new browser Firefox 4?

Beltzner noted that users have expectations about software and naming changes those expectations. For example, people expect Windows Vista to be different than Windows XP because they have different names.

"I think people expect Firefox 4 to look and be a huge difference in the way they interact with the browser compared with Firefox 3," Beltzner said. "Firefox 3.5 is a decidedly better browser than Firefox 3, but your primary way of interacting with the browser is the same. So we wanted to set the expectation that this is a fantastic upgrade, but it's not going to break your world."