Mozilla launches Firefox 3.5, starts kill clock for older 3.0

Offers upgrade on opening day to users of older browser to boost uptake

Mozilla launched Firefox 3.5 today, ending six months of delays to wrap up its newest browser almost exactly a year after its last major upgrade.

Firefox 3.5 was posted to Mozilla's servers early Tuesday, Eastern time. The browser, which until several months ago was named 3.1, first entered public testing with an Alpha 1 release in July 2008, then moved to beta last October. The browser moved to release candidate stage this month.

The launch makes good on a Mozilla promise to ship the browser in the first half of the year. Early in development, however, Mozilla said it was shooting for a quick turnaround for the upgrade, and pegged a late 2008 date. Those plans were made moot by decisions to delay the upgrade in order to add significant new features, and then to deal with numerous hard-to-handle bugs.

"There are some great new enhancements here," said Sherri McLeish, an analyst with Forrester Research, who noted that some of those additions, in fact, played catch-up to Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 and Google's Chrome. "Part of this release is to provide a private browsing mode," observed McLeish.

Unlike last year, Mozilla didn't heavily promote the upgrade this time. In June 2008, Mozilla coordinated Firefox 3.0's availability with an attempt to set a world record for downloads. In the ensuing rush, Mozilla's servers were briefly overwhelmed.

There was little sign of a similar outage today. Computerworld staffers were able to update without significant problems Tuesday, although some saw extremely slow download speeds.

The appearance of Firefox 3.5 also starts the end-of-life clock ticking for Firefox 3.0. Mozilla's policy is to support an older edition for only six months after the launch of a successor, meaning the kill date for Version 3.0 will be Dec. 31, 2009. At or around that time, Mozilla will stop producing security patches for the older browser.

To address that, and to move more users from 3.0 to 3.5 in a shorter span, Mozilla has changed from past practice and started offering the upgrade to Firefox 3.x users today. They can update by selecting "Check for Updates" under the "Help" menu.

The change, said Mozilla developer John O'Duinn in a blog post yesterday, is significant: The first time Firefox 3.0 was offered to Firefox 2.x users, for example, was more than two months after the former's release. "This means people should be able to migrate from FF3.0-FF3.5 faster then we have historically seen people migrate from FF1.5-FF2.0 or FF2.0-FF3.0," O'Duinn said.

Mozilla will also be able to offer Firefox 3.x users what it calls "major update" offers on a continuous basis, rather than having to build, then rebuild each offer. "This means we can issue, and re-issue, major updates as often as we like to users ... [and] users who passively wait for major updates will now only be shown a major update dialog box when [Mozilla executives] ask for the 'background-idle' major update to be unthrottled," said O'Duinn.

The company is wise to push users to upgrade, said McLeish, considering the changed nature of the browser market. "The competition has really heated up," she said.

Mozilla's best chance to up its market share, in fact, may not be on the back of Firefox 3.5, but because of Microsoft's decision to strip IE8 from Windows 7 in the face of possible antitrust action by antitrust regulators in the European Union.

"Open-source is certainly well-received in the EU," said McLeish, "but [any change in share] will really depend on what decisions the OEMs make, and how they will offer alternative browsers. It's too early to get any insight into what those relationships will be. But it's a good time for Firefox or Chrome, or even Opera, to forge new relationships with OEMs."

Firefox 3.5 can be downloaded in Windows, Mac and Linux editions in nearly 60 different languages from Mozilla's site; current users can update by choosing "Check for Updates" under the "Help" menu.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)

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