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Browsers 2010: The Year in Review

The past year was one of the busiest in recent memory for browser developers, with multiple releases and innovations from Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Apple Safari, Microsoft Internet Explorer and Opera.

At the heart of current browser technology race is the emerging HTML5 standard, which updates the decade-old HTML 4 standard that underpins all modern Web browsers. With HTML5, new video, audio and canvas tags enable browser vendors to deliver new dynamic rich media experiences to Web users. Many developers are also leveraging HTML5 as an alternative to Adobe's Flash, as Apple's iOS ban on mobile Flash usage continues.

Mozilla Firefox

Mozilla delivered only one major browser release during 2010, and it came early in the year. Firefox 3.6 debuted in January, providing new HTML5 support and improved JavaScript performance.

With Firefox 3.6, Mozilla began integrating a plug-in check to ensure that users were up to date with their browser extensions. Firefox 3.6 also changed the browser's tab behavior, so that new tabs now open in the tab adjacent to the one the user is viewing.

The Firefox 3.6 release was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of browser releases for Mozilla. During the year, Mozilla developers talked about a new plan to help accelerate innovation in the browser without the need for major updates. The Lorentz branch of Firefox 3.6 was originally intended as a new agile development branch of Mozilla, though the plan didn't deliver as much as initially had been hoped.

The first Lorentz-branch release of Firefox debuted in June with the Firefox 3.6.4 release. With 3.6.4, Mozilla developers introduced out-of-process plug-ins as an approach to improve the stability and security of the browser.

While Mozilla updated Firefox 3.6 all the way up to version 3.6.13 during 2010, after 3.6.4, no new features were added to the browser. Instead of following the initial Lorentz plan of introducing incremental features in point releases of Firefox 3.6, the point releases ended up serving primarily to address security issues and fix bugs.

Instead of advancing the Lorentz plan, the big push for Mozilla's browser development during much of 2010 was focused on Firefox 4. Mozilla first publicly discussed its plans for Firefox 4 in May. Initially, the group's developers had targeted the end of 2010 for the final release of Firefox 4, but have since pushed back delivery to early 2011.

The first public beta of Firefox 4 debuted in July, delivering a new user interface and HTML 5 features.

With Firefox 4, Mozilla is also introducing new security features to further protect Web users. Speed is another key driver in Firefox 4 with the new JagerMonkey JavaScript engine.

Tabs are also set to get a usability boost in Firefox 4 with a feature that was first known as Tab Candy. Tab Candy has since been renamed Firefox Panorama, and delivers a new approach to how users can organize and use tabs in groups.

Google Chrome

In contrast to the single major release made by Mozilla Firefox during 2010, Google's Chrome browser delivered no less than five major releases. During the year, Google detailed and delivered on its agile plan for rapid releases, aiming to premiere a new stable build of Chrome every 12 weeks.

The first stable Chrome browser release of the year came at the end of January with the Chrome 4 release. With Chrome 4, Google debuted an extension add-on system for its browser.

Chrome 5 hit stable status at the end of May, marking a major milestone for the browser. The Chrome 5 stable release was notable in that it marked the first stable release of Google's browser for the Linux and Apple Mac operating systems. Prior to Chrome 5, the browser had only been available as a stable release for Windows users. Chrome 5 also improved the integrated browser synchronization capabilities with support for themes and startup preferences.

In June, Google provided an incremental update to its browser with the Chrome 5.0.375.86 release, which included an integrated Adobe Flash Player.

Google delivered Chrome 6 in September, primarily as a security update to patch nine flaws. Similarly, Chrome 7, which debuted in October, was mainly a security update.

Chrome 8, released at the beginning of December, provided fixes for 800 bugs and introduced an integrated Adobe PDF reader into the browser.

The Chrome browser is also at the core of Google's Chrome OS, which received a preview release during 2010 and is expected to become generally available in 2011.

Apple Safari

The pace of browser releases from Apple was somewhat slower than Google's during 2010. Apple released one major version of its Safari browser during 2010, following the trend of improving HTML5 features.

Safari 5 debuted in June, with improved usability and performance features.

The Nitro JavaScript engine, which made its debut in the Safari 4 release, was improved, and a DNS prefetching capability was added to further enhance performance.

Apple also inaugurated its Safari Developer Program during the year, which includes an extension builder program for Safari.

Microsoft Internet Explorer

Microsoft was the only major browser vendor that didn't issue a significant release during 2010. Though Internet Explorer (IE) was updated multiple times during the year for security and stability issues, no major new version or features were released.

Microsoft did however spend much of 2010 talking about its upcoming IE 9 browser, which is currently in development. The first public beta for IE 9 debuted in September.

With IE 9, Microsoft is jumping on the HTML5 bandwagon in an effort to extend the Web's capabilities. IE 9 is also set to deliver a new user interface as well as the speedier Chakra JavaScript engine.

As opposed to every other major vendor, which all continue to offer their next generation browser for Windows XP as well as Windows 7 users, Microsoft is only making IE 9 available to Windows 7 and Windows Vista users. IE 9 is set for general availability in 2011.

Opera

Norwegian browser developer Opera Software ended 2010 on a strong note with the release of Opera 11.

Opera 11 introduces tab stacking features to help users organize their tabs. The Opera 11 release also marked the formal debut of extensions in Opera.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.