Mozilla sets Firefox 4 release for November

Outlines plans, goals -- including leaner interface -- for major upgrade

Mozilla plans to ship a beta of Firefox 4 next month, and a final by the end of November, a company executive said yesterday.

In a 50-minute presentation, Mike Beltzner, the director of Firefox, spelled out not only the timeline for the next major upgrade, but also outlined the new features, changes and technology enhancements the company hopes to pack into the browser.

Beltzner also confirmed that Mozilla has dropped the idea of doing an interim edition, Firefox 3.7, which at one point last year it had slated for a mid-2010 release. Instead, the next version of Firefox 3.6 will include the primary feature once scheduled for Firefox 3.7, technology that splits some plug-in processes from the core browser.

That technology and associated project, dubbed "Lorentz," prevents crashes by Adobe's Flash, Apple's QuickTime or Microsoft's Silverlight plug-ins from bringing down the browser. The so-called "out of process plug-ins," or OOPP as Mozilla calls the feature, will officially debut when Firefox 3.6.4 launches Thursday.

Most of Beltzner's presentation, which was Webcast live Monday afternoon and is also available in a recorded version (HTML5 video-enabled browser, such as Firefox 3.6, required) , was dedicated to defining the goals Mozilla has for Firefox 4, down to the individual features that may or may not make it into the final.

Performance is one of the key areas Firefox 4 will address, said Beltzner. "Performance is a huge, huge, huge thing for us," he said. "We created the performance story, and we've got to keep at it."

Beltzner emphasized that Mozilla will both boost the raw speed of Firefox -- it has been working on ways to push its TraceMonkey JavaScript engine -- and in users' perception of speed.

The latter will be tackled by slimming down Firefox's user interface, something Mozilla has been working on since last year . "The simpler an interface looks, the faster it will seem," said Beltzner. "The less the user has to take in with their eye, the quicker they can process it and the quicker the entire application will seem. So we're actually looking at making our interface faster just by changing the way it looks."

The new interface for Firefox 4 will remind many of Google's Chrome, with tabs above the toolbar and address bar, fewer buttons -- including an all-in-one Home button that also serves as a single-menu App button -- and fewer dialog box interruptions. Mozilla is also aiming to eventually emulate Chrome by applying updates silently in the background.

Speed improvements could be crucial to Firefox's future. Although the browser was once one of the fastest when measured by the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark scores, more recently it has lagged behind rivals such as Chrome, Apple's Safari and Opera Software's Opera. In Computerworld 's latest tests, Firefox beat only one browser , Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 (IE8), in JavaScript rendering speeds.

Beltzner also described a slew of other goals for Firefox 4, ranging from native 64-bit versions for Windows and Mac OS X to hardware acceleration using Windows' Direct2D API, as well as support for multitouch and a new parser to interpret HMTL5 code.

If it follows through on its Direct2D hardware acceleration plans, Mozilla will join Microsoft, which has pinned high hopes on the technology for its upcoming IE9, in tapping the power of a Windows PC's graphics processor, or GPU. Direct2D is available, however, only in Windows Vista and Windows 7 ; Windows XP users will not be able to take advantage of the feature.

Mozilla is also planning to integrate a single sign-on feature with Firefox 4 to make it easier for users to log in to Web sites, and hopes to add a permissions manager to let users control passwords, cookies and geolocation settings on specific sites such as Facebook , YouTube and Gmail.

The push to Firefox 4 is an "aggressive schedule, to be sure," Beltzner admitted.

But the browser has a head start of sorts, since Mozilla has been issuing alpha-quality builds of the upgrade since February. The fourth "Developer Preview" was released April 12 , but yesterday Beltzner said a fifth and final alpha would likely show up this month.

Starting in late June, Mozilla will begin issuing public betas of Firefox 4 every two to three weeks, said Beltzner, who noted that the same stepped-up pace last year for Firefox 3.6 was invaluable.

Several times during the presentation and later in a blog entry , Beltzner cautioned that the Firefox 4 schedule could mutate at any time. "Understand that these plans are fluid and are likely to change," he wrote on his blog. "As with past releases, we use dates to set targets for milestones ... [and] judge each milestone release against our basic criteria of quality, performance, and usability, and we only ship when it's ready."

Historically, Mozilla has had a difficult time keeping to its initial development schedules. Firefox 3.6, for example, which launched last January, was released about two months later than first planned.

Beltzner hinted that the same could happen with Firefox 4. If it looks like the upgrade won't make it out the door by the end of November, Mozilla will skip a December release and push the browser into early 2011.

"[December] is a bad time to release a product," Beltzner said.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com .

Read more about browsers in Computerworld's Browsers Knowledge Center.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)
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