Inside Firefox 3’s Latest Beta Update, Part 2

Mozilla has been working diligently toward the upcoming final launch of Firefox Version 3.0. With the recent release of the browser’s third beta edition, the company’s engineers have wrapped up the major challenges and are focused on incremental changes. Now they’re working at tweaking the browser in response to feedback from testers.

Part 1 of this series discusses security and usability. In this part, we look at newly added personalization features and improvements in the browser’s performance.

Personalize This!

Firefox Beta 3 also introduces a greater level of personalization. Using the improved “Star” button, users can add bookmarks from the location bar with a click. With two clicks, users can file and tag their bookmarks.

Mozilla has given the location bar and auto-complete feature an overhaul as well. Users can simply type in all or part of the title, tag or address of a page and a list of matches from the user’s Web history and bookmarks will be presented in a new display. The new feature makes it easier to scan through for matching results, according to the company.

In Beta 3, Mozilla has also included an enhanced algorithm able to calculate the frequency and recency, dubbed “frecency,” of visits and provide a score that determines the most relevant results.

“One of our developers calls this the ‘awesome bar.’ It brings the concept of search to your browser directly now. If you start typing it will go ahead and search through all the Web sites you’ve visited and bookmarked and try to figure out what Web site you’re trying to go see,” Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering for Mozilla, told LinuxInsider.

If you tend to visit the same sites over and over again, we make it easy to find them again. We’ve integrated search throughout the browser. You can search your history, your saved passwords and downloads. Again, this makes it super easy to find the things that are interesting to you. It’s really unique,” he continued.

This development may raise red flags for some privacy-minded users, but there’s no need to worry, according to Schroepfer.

“You can think of it as bringing Google to your part of the Web, because we have bunch of information about what you’ve done, but we don’t have to send it up to a server. You don’t have to worry about privacy. It’s all just on your computer. It’s awesome.”

The add-ons manager in Beta 3 will now download and install thousands of customizations available from Mozilla’s community add-ons site. In addition, users will receive a list of recommended add-ons after opening the Add-On Manager.

High-Performance Machine

After significant architectural changes, Mozilla has given Firefox a major performance tune-up that increased the browser’s page drawing speed. Beta 3 also includes more than 90 other changes to give users greater performance over earlier betas.

As the Web has grown larger and more Internet surfers open an increasing number of tabs and use applications such as Gmail or Zoho Office, performance memory usage has become increasingly important, Schroepfer explained.

More than 350 separate memory leaks have been plugged in this third beta to improve memory usage. A new XPCOm cycle collector that completely eliminates many other leaks has been included. As developers continue to try to optimize memory usage in Firefox by releasing cached object more quickly and reducing fragmentation, Beta 3 includes over 50 improvements than the previous beta.

“We’ve incorporated a couple of hundred performance memory fixes to Firefox 3 to make it render pages faster, use less memory when you have lots of tabs open and all those sorts of things to make it a smooth experience,” he noted.

Mozilla’s work to improve performance is the most significant change in Beta 3, said Stephen O’Grady, a RedMonk analyst who has been using Firefox 3 Beta 3 as his primary browser for about a week.

“I’m very impressed. Far and away the most significant improvement has been the performance. Firefox 2.0, while it did yeoman’s work for me in its time, was notorious for its performance and memory leaks. Firefox 3.0, in my usage thus far, has been significantly more usable,” he told LinuxInsider.

“Also important are the location bar enhancements, the improved protocol handling and more,” O’Grady added.

More to Come

As Mozilla evaluates feedback from developers and testers, O’Grady suggested the company’s greatest hurdle will be extensions.

“The biggest challenge will be one not in Mozilla’s control — the extensions. With one or two exceptions, none of my Firefox 2.0 extensions work over on 3.0. They’ll get there in time, but some users may be missing a favorite extension or two until they’re made compatible,” he explained.

Mozilla makes some 1,000 improvements each month in Firefox 3 but is done integrating any big new features. With at least one more Firefox 3 beta set for release around March, Firefox users will have to wait for the final version, Schroepfer said.

“We don’t [have a set date for the final release.] It’s definitely this year — probably the first half of this year. Our next milestone is Beta 4, which we’ll be shipping sometime in March. The thing we’re doing right now is trying to polish and continue to work on performance and memory. We have some great things lined up for Beta 4,” he told LinuxInsider.

Users will see tweaks to the visual look, minor tweaks to features, lots of small fixes in performance and stability, he added.

Stiff Competition

With all the improvements Mozilla has made, the browser could give Internet Explorer and Safari a run for users, according to O’Grady.

“Firefox continues to be very competitive on a feature function basis and has made strides in advancing the browser experience even further. The most compelling feature, however, as far as attracting new users in my view remains the community around Firefox rather than Firefox itself,” he pointed out.

The bulk of Web users use a single browser — mostly Internet Explorer (IE), Firefox or Safari.

However, there is evidence that an increasing number of Web sites are being optimized for Firefox and more people install the browser as a second option, according to Raven Zachary, a research director at The 451 Group.

“More and more people are installing Firefox to use as a secondary browser in those cases where IE or Safari still has the upper hand,” he told LinuxInsider.

“IE and Safari have strong followings due to the [operating system] bundling aspect, and the Safari release for Windows places some potential pressure on Firefox, as benchmarking data shows Safari to have the upper hand right now. We’ll have to see how Firefox 3 impacts this,” he explained.

Inside Firefox 3’s Latest Beta Update, Part 1

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