Mozilla released Firefox 8 today, a version that weeds out some add-ons and that will shoulder more responsibility for the organization's new fast-development process.
Giving the user control over the Web experience has been a longstanding Mozilla priority, and Firefox 8 (download for Windows | Mac | Linux | Android) takes a new step here. With earlier versions, third-party software could extend Firefox with new features--Skype's tool for highlighting phone numbers for easy online calling, for example. With Firefox 8, though, third-party add-ons will be disabled by default.
"These add-ons installed by third parties present a number of problems: they can slow down Firefox start-up and page loading time, they clutter the interface with toolbars that often go unused, they lag behind on compatibility and security updates, and most importantly, they take the user out of control of their add-ons," said Mozilla programmer Justin "Fligtar" Scott in a blog post about the feature.
Mozilla also is working to make sure that people really want the add-ons that already are installed. A dialog box will appear once after the new browser is installed that lets people select which add-ons to enable or disable. Those the user installed will be enabled by default, but those installed by third parties will be disabled by default.
Add-ons have long been a competitive asset for Firefox, but Safari, Chrome, and Opera now have their own versions of the technology. And add-ons can be a disadvantage, too, if they aren't updated at the same pace as Mozilla now updates Firefox or that aren't covered by Mozilla's automatic compatibility testing system.
The rapid-release process, pioneered by Google's Chrome and in use with Firefox since earlier this year, yields a new browser every six weeks. Among the implications: Differences from one version to the next are smaller, new features can be brought to users without waiting a year or more; delaying a feature carries a lower penalty and doesn't hold up other features; and slow-moving business customers and add-on programmers have had a harder time keeping up.
The rapid-release transition caused a lot of indigestion, but Mozilla is committed to it. A major course correction, though, appears likely with the proposal of the Extended Support Release version that's updated every 30 weeks.
Updating Firefox rapidly is a priority in part because new Web features developing rapidly and the browser market is arguably more competitive than ever. Firefox's previously steady growth in usage has plateaued with the arrival of Chrome, and Mozilla is at a grave disadvantage in the mobile browser market, where Firefox isn't installed anywhere by default.
A lot of Firefox users remain on version 3.6, which predated the rapid-release era. That's likely to change, though: On November 17, Mozilla plans to flip the switch for recommending Firefox 3.6 users update. Since many people typically follow the upgrade recommendation, that'll mean Firefox 8 will be the introduction many Firefox users will have to the rapid-release philosophy.
Mozilla isn't ceasing support of Firefox 3.6 yet, though. Today, it also plans to release the latest maintenance version, 3.6.24.
What else will they see when they arrive? A number of new features are coming in Firefox 8, according to release notes and other sources:
Twitter is now an option for Firefox's search bar, letting people more easily find Twitter hashtags (keywords beginning with the "#" character, such as #fail) and Twitter usernames. Initially, the new feature is availalble only with English, Portuguese, Slovenian, and Japanese versions, though.
Firefox now supports a new HTML feature that lets Web developers easily add context menus to their Web sites and Web apps--the options that appear when a person right-clicks with a mouse, for example. It's a technology that helps Web apps more easily match what native desktop apps can do today.
Tabs get a tune-up, too. The animations should look better when people reorder tabs, and Firefox gets a new option to load tabs on restart only when a person makes those tabs active. Today, when people restart Firefox, the browser often becomes sluggish as it tries to reconstitute all the tabs it must reopen. The new option loads only the selected tab, leaving the others blank until a person selects that tab. It can be useful to get your main tab working fast, but it could be improved if it just deferred tab reloads until the computer had some attention to spare so the other tabs would still arrive automatically at some point.
The Android version of Firefox 8 has a feature called master password to protect saved usernames and passwords. "This will help your private info stay private if you ever share or lose your Android device," Mozilla said. Grander changes are in the wings, though: a version of Firefox that uses Android's native interface for faster loading and better performance.
The 3D graphics technology called WebGL has a new feature called cross-domain textures developed to work around a security problem. In a related move, ANGLE--a translation technology developed initially by Google to wire up OpenGL commands to DirectX equivalents for computers that don't have OpenGL support--is now available for Firefox on 64-bit Windows.
And as usual, the Firefox 8 gets a lot of bug fixes, including several with the important new Web Socket interface for high-speed communications between browsers and servers.
Through the cascading development process, Firefox 9 is entering beta testing now, Firefox 10 is arriving as the rougher Aurora version of Firefox, and the developer-only Nightly build becomes Firefox 11. Firefox 9 is due December 20.