Users will find significant enhancements in usability, performance, extensibility, security and privacy in the upcoming test version of Firefox 1.5, the first major upgrade of the popular open source browser since the launch of Firefox 1.0 in November of last year.
Beta 1 of Firefox 1.5 will become available for free download either late Thursday or early Friday, according to an official from Mozilla, the subsidiary of the nonprofit Mozilla Foundation that is charged with developing, marketing and distributing Mozilla products.
Code-named Deer Park, Firefox 1.5 will have a second beta version, slated for Oct. 5, and then very possibly two or three follow-up releases, starting in late October. A final version will probably launched in November or December of this year after the early releases, said Chris Beard, head of products and marketing at Mozilla.
The beta releases are primarily aimed at software developers for testing and feedback, but anyone interested will be able to download the software, Beard said. The follow-up versions, called "release candidates," are closer to what the finished product will be.
After years of absolute dominance of the browser market by Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Firefox has emerged as an alternative, and has between 7 percent and 8 percent of usage market share, according to various market research studies.
"We've had a pretty successful year following the launch of Firefox 1.0 and we're continuing to see very strong demand," Beard said. Mozilla estimates there are between 40 million and 50 million active Firefox users, defined as those who use the browser on a daily basis, and the browser is downloaded hundreds of thousands of times every day, he said.
Although Firefox's adopters are predominantly technically savvy users, mainstream adoption has been increasing, and version 1.5 is expected to help further the browser's popularity among the nontechnical, Beard said.
Beta 1 of Firefox 1.5 will offer faster Web-site navigation, due to advanced capabilities for caching and pre-rendering content, he said.
The product's tabbed browsing feature has also been improved by making it possible for users to rearrange pages by dragging and dropping them, he said.
Another improved feature is the Live Bookmarks, which lets users bookmark RSS (Really Simple Syndication) or Atom content syndication feeds. Live Bookmarks' ability to detect the presence of feeds on Web sites has been sharpened, and the browser will now flash an icon in the URL bar if the site being visited offers a feed or feeds, he said.
In terms of security and privacy, the biggest improvement is an automated update feature to make it easy for users to keep their browser current with the latest improvements and patches available for it, Beard said. For example, with the current version users have to download the entire browser again to get updates, but with Firefox 1.5 users will be able to simply download the patches, making the process faster, he said.
The updates will be downloaded in the background in bits and pieces at a time, so as to not interfere with the browsing experience, and users will be prompted to install them once the patch has been completely downloaded, he said.
Moreover, the automated update feature also will take into account the add-ins a user has installed on a browser, to ensure compatibility between the updates to the browser and the extensions, he said.
"We're delivering a software update capability that is holistic, that takes into account how people use Firefox," Beard said. "This feature is one of the most significant enhancements. It has been a pain point for Firefox users and we believe we've delivered a solution that will let people stay current."
Meanwhile, the browser's ability to block pop-up ads has been enhanced, so that it catches more of these ads, he said. Also in the area of security, Mozilla has made it easier for users to clear private data from the browser's Web-site history log, cache, saved forms, cookies, authenticated sessions and saved passwords, he said.
Mozilla has also worked with partners and community developers to create an ever increasing number of add-ins, or extensions, for the browser, that users can plug into their browser to bolster a wide variety of functions, such as security, content syndication capabilities and Internet searching, he said.
"We're using our extension space as a virtual research and development effort to test out new capabilities for the browser before they are incorporated," Beard said.
Beyond Firefox 1.5, Mozilla is already in preliminary plans for Firefox 2.0, due at some point next year, he said. As the development of Firefox continues, the project is being helped by the creation of Mozilla in August, Beard said.
"It lets us work very effectively with our open source project and network of volunteers and contributors, but it also now lets us engage in commercial activities which you expect to see from a software organization," he said.
That includes the creation of a business development plan and the establishment of commercial relationships, while keeping the browser free of charge and open source, he said.