After more than 18 months of development and a slew of releases — including five alphas, five betas and three Release Candidates — the wait for Mozilla’s Firefox 3 is nearly over.
Starting today at 10 AM Pacific Daylight Time, the Web browser will become available in its final form, introducing a myriad of new features and enhancements.
The Firefox 3 release aims to improve the Web experience for the browser’s 170 million users while expanding market share even further, coming as it does months ahead of the next major release from Microsoft, Internet Explorer 8 (IE).
While Microsoft holds the top spot in browsers, Mozilla is banking that a number of improvements in Firefox 3 could put it into the lead.
At the heart of the new release is a focus on speed. Mozilla developers claim the new release outpaces both Firefox 2 and Microsoft’s current Internet Explorer 7.
“We’re about 10 times faster than Internet Explorer 7 and about three times faster than Firefox 2,” Mozilla developer Mike Beltzner told InternetNews.com.
Additionally, Mozilla conducted an application-specific test that compared relative performance on Google’s Gmail service. Beltzner said Firefox 3 proved to be four times faster than Firefox 2 and seven times quicker than IE 7.
Memory usage also improved substantially in Firefox 3. Many users had complained about Firefox 2’s memory-hogging tendencies, especially when multiple tabs remained open throughout the course of a day.
“We looked at ways of breaking memory cycles that weren’t being freed up and we looked at ways of allocating memory better,” Beltzner said.
Compared to Firefox 2, Firefox 3 uses less memory to start and releases the memory properly when a particular tab is closed.
“This is important because people are browsing more — they’re leaving their browser open more during the day and they are leaving tabs and windows open,” Beltzner said. “So we wanted to make sure we were being responsible with memory.”
From a technical perspective, a big contributor to Firefox 3’s memory improvements come by way of the XPCOM (Cross Platform Component Object Model) cycle collector. XPCOM is a tool that identifies objects that aren’t being used and releases them from memory.
Mozilla first publically introduced XPCOM into the development cycle last November for the Beta 1 release. For Beta 1 alone, Mozilla claimed developers plugged 300 memory leaks with additional leaks plugged during subsequent beta releases.
Beyond performance enhancements, Firefox 3 also introduces new features including a “smart” location address bar, internally dubbed the “awesome bar”.
“Just like tabbed browsing revolutionized the way people browse, I think what we’ve done with the smart location bar will also revolutionize the way people browse,” Beltzner said.
Instead of having to bookmark, remember or use a search engine to locate a site, a user can simple type a query term into the location bar and all previously visited sites that include the term will display in a drop down from the address bar.
Adding a bookmark is also simplified — now it’s as easy as clicking on the star icon on the address bar to bookmark any page. Bookmarks can also have tags associated with them which will also help when a smart address bar query is entered.
“It sounds like a small thing but it turns out to change the way you browse,” Beltzner said.
Security also gets a boost in Firefox 3 in a number of ways. Among the most visible is the new site identity button, which is embedded with a site’s favicon (the 16×16 icon that sits to the left of a site address on the address bar of any browser).
When a user clicks the favicon, they now activate the Mozilla passport officer, which provides a form of verified site information about ownership of a given site.
The feature — which developers have named “Larry” — provides a form of verified information about ownership of a given site. When a user clicks the favicon for a supported site, Larry lets users know that they’re on the real site and whether or not the traffic is encrypted.
Currently, however, Larry might not be as useful as other enhancements, owing to a lack of supporting information from sites.
“Most Web sites don’t supply identity information,” Beltzner said. “That’s totally fine, but some Web sites do.”
Sites that provide identity information include Facebook and PayPal.
The feature does offer additional benefits, however.
For one thing, “Larry also protects users from malware,” Beltzner said.
By leveraging the Google Safe Browsing technology that Mozilla developers have been using since Firefox 2, Firefox 3’s Larry identifies malware sites a user might visit. Unlike Firefox 2, the new version of the browser now fully blocks loading of the site.
Among the other features baked into Firefox 3 is a pause-and-resume download capability. It also offers searching through downloads using keywords to more easily find items.
The add-on feature is also easier to use in Firefox 3 than it was for Firefox 2, with a list of recommended add-ons from Mozilla as well as an easy mechanism for discovering new ones.
Mozilla has also secured the update mechanism itself with SSL-encrypted updates, which are aimed at preventing man-in-the-middle-type attacks.
With today’s release, Mozilla isn’t just aiming to change its browser. It’s
also aiming to enter the record books — the Guinness Book of Records, to be precise.
The group’s goal is to set the record for the most downloads of a piece of software in one day. Although Mozilla is aiming for 5 million downloads on release day, any number it posts will still be a record, since Guinness has never tracked this category before.
Mozilla has been on an aggressive development path since October
2006, when the first Firefox 3 alpha appeared not long after the Firefox 2
release earlier that month.
While Firefox 3.0 marks the end of the long road to release, a new version is already in the works. Firefox 3.1 had its first alpha release yesterday — and so the process begins again.