Firefox accelerating development cycle

Summary:Firefox has crossed the 100 million download mark, has somewhere between 8 and 14 percent share of the browser market, depending on who’s counting, and is closing in on the official release of version 1.5, due around November 28.

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Firefox has crossed the 100 million download mark, has somewhere between 8 and 14 percent share of the browser market, depending on who’s counting, and is closing in on the official release of version 1.5, due around November 28. I met with Chris Beard, Mozilla’s vice president of products, last week, to get a better sense of where Firefox is heading.

Beard’s articulation of Mozilla’s mission for the browser was in line with what I heard from Firefox co-creator Blake Ross a few months ago--focus on a simple and clean user experience and act as an advocate for the consumer.

To advance that agenda, the Mozilla team, with more than 40 full-time employees, is going to be more aggressive in delivering new Firefox functionality than it has been in the past. Beard told me Mozilla will move to a more rapid product delivery model, in keeping with the pace the herd of Web 2.0 companies, as well as Microsoft's newfound faster "twitch" cycles.

  • Rapid response to any critical issues
  • Security and stability updates every six to eight weeks
  • Major releases every six to nine months—Firefox 1.5 at the end of November, version 2.0 by mid-2006 and 3.0 in early 2007
  • Release of the Gecko rendering and layout engine every 12 to 15 months

Like many other companies, Mozilla has figured out that more continuous innovation and rapid iteration are required to compete in Web applications. Adam Bosworth, of Google, calls the Web product development model "intelligent reaction, not intelligent design." It includes trying things out in public and using customers to learn in real-time about the viability of features. 

As open source software, Firefox gets plenty of users in the testing feedback loop, but Mozilla's stated manta on creating the most intuitive browser experience--which isn't unique to Mozilla--may get in the way of interating at a rapid rate. Beard said Mozilla is content to be more of a follower than a leader in implementing new features.

I asked him about Flock, a browser currently only available for developer preview based on Firefox that adds an RSS reader, blogging and bookmark sharing among other features. "Flock has a lot of new innovations. It's exciting to see how it's accelerating. We will be slower in adding innovative things in the browser. We want to make sure we are not over complicating, confusing or getting in way of users," Beard said. "We are moving to a faster update cycle and working with leading Web partners. We will evolve Firefox with the Web, on a path that doesn’t compromise the Web experience as defined by our community of users, which stretches to tens of millions."

Mozilla may find itself having to iterate much faster than it wants to in order to maintain its momentum, especially if Internet Explorer regains traction or an newcomer like Flock manages to break through.

Version 1.5 includes many bug fixes and optimizations behind the scenes, but no significant user interface enhancements. The auto updater is new--you no longer need to download the entire installer to receive updates and can pause and resume downloads. A new Clear Private Data dialog provides more flexibility for managing private data. In addition, tabbed browsing, extensions, the pop-up blocker, improved discoverability of RSS feeds, error handling and other elements have been improved. The Gecko engine has performance improvements, in particular around history navigation, a wider set of forms support and better Web application support, Beard said. It also supports new graphics APIs for Web content, such as the Canvas tag and SVG 1.1 for 2D graphics.

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For version 2.0 Beard said he the team was engaged in product planning now, and conducting usability studies to understand how people organize windows, navigate and use bookmarks. "We'll refresh the look and add more more polish, and look at tabbed browsing improvements, social bookmarks and sharing," he said. He reiterated that Mozilla mantra is a simple, easy and not esoteric user experience.

Annotating, tagging and sharing bookmarks and other content on the Web is one area of development for 2.0. "We've seen it from a lot of different players, so we are actively following that and thinking how those capability can be better delivered to end user as part of browsing experience," Beard said. "In the next month or so, we'll get feedback."

Beard also said that the Mozilla team is exploring presence and identity. "We are in the exploratory phase. Increasingly your life and data are on the Web. We have made an initial survey across the industry--Microsoft [Infocards), Sxip and Ping--but we haven't made any design or architectural decisions," Beard said. "We are still looking at it, doing the classic 'do we buy, build or partner' or build hooks into different approaches. The whole space is pretty new and it remains to be seen how it will evolve."

On the subject of Microsoft Internet Explorer 7, Beard said, "Microsoft is waking up and responding. It's going to help drive innovation and keep us honest. It encourages us to not sit back on our laurels and continue with our mission."

Topics: Browser

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