Firefox survives first round of surgery

Mozilla's three months into an ambitious plan to bolt a long list of features into its browser. Competitors left it no choice.

by Seth Rosenblatt  March 30, 2012 7:49 PM PDT
Firefox to change its look--again

After years of tough competition from dominance-seeking Google Chrome and Internet Explorer, Mozilla faces a second year in a row of forced adaptations. Its aggressive Firefox 2012 development plan calls for surgeries both minor and radical to integrate many new pieces into the browser, but it may not survive post-op. At least, not as you know it.

So far, the changes have resulted in a Firefox which, simply put, runs better. Two of the most tangible new tools have changed add-on behavior. The addition of add-ons to Firefox Sync let you mirror the same add-ons at work and at home, and you won't have to reinstall them manually if your computer crashes.

A second add-on change marks around 80 percent of add-ons as compatible by default with each new version of Firefox. This prevents the browser from worrying about the "maximum version compatibility" issue that was relevant back in Firefox 3, when updates were annual, but is much less of a problem when updates come every six weeks.
Other early 2012 victories for Firefox include Chrome migration; a new design for HTML5 media controls; better developer and Web platform tools; and a Firefox "hotfix" system for pushing out minor updates that don't require a browser restart. Granted, these are the equivalent of medicating a patient to lower a fever while the virus still infects the body, but they're good starts. They're just more about keeping up with the competition than they are about forging ahead.

The second quarter of 2012 doesn't look particularly life-saving, either. Some of the highlights of what Mozilla wants to achieve before the end of June include an improved Home Tab and New Tab experience; in-location bar search that ensures user privacy; automatic browsing session restore with tabs-on-demand; a panel-based download manager; and silent updates. These are achievements that Firefox is not boldly leading on. Some of them, such as the Home Tab and New Tab, and silent updates, are already in the Firefox Aurora development build, which means that they're well on their way to reaching most people.

Of course, there are basic feature improvements planned for the second half of 2012, too, such as preventing default search engine hijacks by add-ons. This will kill off one of the browser's biggest remaining annoyances. The Options menu will be changed from a pop-up to a menu in the main browser window, not unlike how Chrome presents its Preferences. Also following the footsteps of others will be a click-to-play option for plug-ins, and integrated language translation.

But the second half of 2012 is also when Mozilla anticipates that many of its loftier goals will mature. These include integrating a social sharing tool called Firefox Share; an interface update code-named Australis; its next-generation JavaScript engine called IonMonkey; a feature-ready beta version of Firefox for Windows 8; and an e-mail-based identification system that would allow people to log in to Firefox and pull down all their settings, bookmarks, add-ons, and passwords from a secure server.

This could be a Holy Grail for Mozilla's independent, open-Web initiatives, if it's able to successfully tie the browser login with its broader, site-based Mozilla Persona login plans to compete with Facebook and Google. Think about it: Mozilla competing with Facebook on logins. That's as big a David-and-Goliath scenario as Firefox 1.0 versus Internet Explorer 6.
It's not an idea I disagree with; on the contrary, I think Mozilla is one of the few organizations that has the public's trust and the technical background to pull something like this off. But I'm equally skeptical of its ability to make it happen this year, even on the browser level, because of the enormous resources it will take. Remember, the add-on sync that just debuted earlier this month came a year after sync shipped in-browser. These are not easy technical victories to win.

Further ahead lie other next-gen projects like a new kind of RSS called Push have yet to be added to the public calendar.

At a core level, Mozilla says, the plans call for reminding people that Mozilla is a nonprofit that takes seriously its mission statement of pursuing an open, accessible Web, and it's those core values that are dictating Firefox's direction. Of that, there is little doubt.

Just last year, though, we saw Firefox finally follow Chrome with a less-obtrusive interface, faster JavaScript engine, restartless add-ons, synchronization, more accessible development channels, and a rapid release cycle which barely caused a blip when Google debuted it, but became a source of much sturm und dang among a vocal but definite minority of Firefox users. Browser development is uneven, with the five major browsers often leapfrogging past each other, but the larger point of Firefox appearing to lag behind when it used to aggressively lead was not lost on the people using it.

A big part of the problem is that Firefox is not the only patient that Mozilla is working on. It's also attempting to give birth to a new mobile operating system called Boot to Gecko and marketplace that will host Web apps which can work across multiple platforms including Boot to Gecko. To top it all off, the company faces a brain drain of many of its high-profile, long-time employees.

Assuming Chrome stays on schedule, its high-end graphics and security tech called Native Client will debut in a few months. The powerful Internet Explorer 10 will come with deep integration into Windows 8 around October, and it looks like it will be harder than it is now to switch browsers. Plans for Safari and Opera aren't as open, but it's hard to imagine they're passively observing all these changes.

The combination of internal and external pressures facing Firefox have put it in a position where it must simultaneously adapt and lead to stay ahead of competitors -- if it wants to stay relevant. This is one case where admonitions of "Doctor, heal thyself!" can't go ignored.


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