Inside Firefox 3’s Latest Beta Update, Part 1

Mozilla is up to its elbows in code as it works toward the final release of the third iteration of its Firefox Web browser.

With the launch last week of the browser’s third beta version, the open source developer has given some 500,000 developers and testers the go-ahead to put the application through its paces.

This latest beta is the 11th developer milestone to test the browser’s core functionality and the many new features and changes Mozilla has made to the platform for Firefox 3.

Although Beta 3 includes some 1,300 separate changes from the previous beta, Mozilla said it still has additional changes in the works.

“This beta will give you a taste of what’s coming in Firefox 3, but there’s still more to come, and much of what you’ll see may still be a bit rough around the edges,” the company said.

The beta, however, is intended for Web developers and testers for “testing purposes only,” Mozilla cautioned.

“We do not recommend that anyone other than developers and testers download the Firefox 3 Beta 3 milestone release,” the company warned.

New and Improved

Based on Mozilla’s Gecko 1.9 Web rendering platform, which has been under development for 30 months, Firefox 3 beta 3 contains some 2 million lines of code changes that correct more than 12,000 issues, according to Mozilla.

While Gecko is designed to support open Internet standards, version 1.9 includes “some major re-architecting for performance, stability, correctness and code simplification and sustainability,” according to Mozilla. For Firefox 3, which has been built on this new platform, that means greater security and ease-of-use as well as a more personal product with a lot under the hood that Web site and Firefox add-on developers can take advantage of, the company said.

“What we’re trying to get done with Firefox 3 in general and Beta 3 in particular is really enhancing the things people love about Firefox. They love Firefox because it’s secure, because it’s easy to use, because it’s fast and because it’s customizable. We’ve concentrated on continuing to improve that,” said Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering for Mozilla.

“The Firefox 3 beta includes some important additions. The most significant being continued security enhancements and a number of memory leak fixes, which have been problematic for some users, as well as usability and rendering improvements,” said Raven Zachary, open source research director at the 451 Group.

Safe and Secure

Mozilla made approximately 1,300 changes based on feedback from Firefox Beta 2. Among them are improved security features, such as one-click site information and malware protection.

With the site favicon found on the location bar, users will be able to see who owns a site and check to ensure that their connection is protected from eavesdropping. The feature has been improved and will now more prominently display identity verification that is easier to understand. When sites using Extended Validation SSL (secure sockets layer) certificates are detected, the favicon button will turn green and show the company with which users are connected.

“You can click on it to see if this is really,” Schroepfer said.

Malware protection in Beta 3 has been beefed up so that users will receive a warning when they access sites known to install viruses, spyware, Trojans and other malware. It will prevent users from going to a site that may try to exploit a weakness on the user’s system, like a bug in the browser or in a plug-in like QuickTime or Java. Such exploits are a primary tool that criminals use to take over machines in people’s homes for spam and botnet attacks, Schroepfer told LinuxInsider.

“On the security the front, we’ve made a large number of changes to further improve security for Firefox,” he continued. “The addition of malware protection … [is] a first as far as we know on any browser.”

Mozilla is also working in collaboration with Google to build a black list of sites. If a user tries to visit one of these sites using an e-mail link sent by a spammer — or by an unwitting friend — they will be stopped before accessing the site by a warning that it is a dangerous site, Schroepfer noted.

“That’s a first as far as we know for Web browsers and is a continuation of the feature we launched in Firefox 2, which was anti-phishing and was similar but really targeted at anti-phishing attacks. This takes it one step further to prevent any kind of exploit or attack against the browser, which is really great,” he added.

Ease of Use

Users may also find the new download manager more convenient to use. Mozilla has revamped the download manager to make it easier to find downloaded files, expanding search functionality to include searches for the Web site from which the file was downloaded. Time remaining on active downloads will also now be shown in the status bar.

Mozilla has also improved the way in which podcasts and videocasts can be associated with playback tools and how Firefox integrates with Mac computers.

The new Firefox theme enables toolbars, icons and other elements of the user interface to appear as though they are a native OS X application. Beta 3 also uses OS X widgets and spellchecker in Web forms and supports Growl for completed download and new update availability notifications.

Integration with Linux has also been kicked up a notch so that default icons, buttons and menu styles in Firefox now use the native GTK (The Gimp Toolkit) theme.

“We’ve done a lot of work to make [the browser] look the same as whatever environment you’re on. If it’s Linux, it looks like a Linux app. If you’re on a Mac, it looks like a native Mac app. If you’re on Vista, it looks like a native Vista app. It kind of blends into the environment and makes it feel like part of the operating system but gives you that awesome Firefox experience,” Schroepfer pointed out.

Inside Firefox 3’s Latest Beta Update, Part 2

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