With 3.5 launch, Firefox faces new challengers

Mozilla's browser broke Microsoft IE's lock on the market. But the new Firefox 3.5 faces other serious alternative-browser ontenders.
Written by Stephen Shankland, Contributor

A funny thing to happened to Firefox on the way to vanquishing Internet Explorer: the Mozilla browser's success opened the door for a host of its other competitors.

Even as Internet Explorer's market share has slipped--down a dramatic 8 percentage points to 65.5 percent in about the last year--Firefox programmers face a surprising question: should they be more worried about the programmers in Redmond, Wash., or about those working on Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, and Opera?

Firefox has gained about 3 percentage points to 22.5 percent in market share, according to Net Applications' statistics since July 2008, and Firefox backer Mozilla doubtless hopes for more gains with Tuesday's release of Firefox 3.5. But Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome each gained 2 percentage points, to 8.4 percent and 1.8 percent, respectively, indicating a growing appetite for alternatives to Internet Explorer that's not completely met by Firefox. Opera stayed flat at about 0.7 percent.

In short, Firefox isn't the only scrappy underdog in town, and Firefox fans' easy us-versus-them polarization is transforming into a more complicated multilateral equation.

Having other IE challengers helps legitimize Firefox, because the idea of straying from the IE fold appears more legitimate, but the alternatives also collect some of the new users venturing farther afield. For its part, though, Mozilla likes to see the glass as half full.

"One of our biggest challenges is helping people to understand that they have a choice about their Web browser, and how big a difference that choice can make," Firefox director Mike Beltzner said. "Every release is an opportunity for us to bring improvements directly to our growing user base, but also help many users indirectly by putting pressure on Microsoft to improve their product as well."

Version 3.5 has been, relatively speaking, long in the making. It began its life as what was intended to be a quick and modest upgrade to Firefox 3.0, but the version number expanded along with Mozilla's ambitions for the software.

And it is indeed an important release, both because of competitors and because of new Firefox 3.5 features.

What's in it for users?
Firefox 3.5 has a host of improvements, some the sort of thing people can notice immediately and some plumbing improvements that could help the Web in the long run. With a release in 70 languages, a lot of people will be able to try

Under the covers but providing a direct benefit it TraceMonkey, the new engine that runs Web page programs written in the common JavaScript language. That will mean Web applications such as Google Docs get faster today and, if JavaScript speed improvements continue, more sophisticated tomorrow.

Another feature people might appreciate directly is private browsing mode, which erases evidence on your computer of where you've taken your browser. It's flippantly called porn mode, but it also can be useful to keep your boss from knowing what you've been up to while on company time or searching for Valentine's Day gifts. Along with private browsing goes the ability to excise particular sites or recent activity after the fact, too--though it should be noted that none of these options erase your fingerprints from the servers you visited.

Mozilla also is excited about HTML video, which makes it possible not only to embed video in Web pages without using plug-ins such as Adobe Systems' Flash Player, but also to have that video interact with other elements on the Web page. That's not likely to revolutionize the Web in the short term, especially because of prickly issues regarding file format support, but it could help in the long run.

Design fans will be excited about embeddable fonts that can spruce up Web pages, though typeface designers might be leery of yet another avenue for unlicensed copying of their work.

Deeper down, Firefox 3.5 also adds HTML 5 storage abilities to help make Web applications work when offline, "Web Workers" to let Web applications work on tasks in the background without the user interface bogging down, and improvements to standards such as CSS and SVG for better graphics. And a geolocation function can let Web sites know where you are, handy for maps and other local services.

Collectively, it's an important foundation, though just getting them into version 3.5 is only the first step. Firefox users tend to update relatively swiftly, but they're still a minority on the Web, and Web programmers tend to wait for some critical mass before they can afford to support the latest browser features.

Fending off rivals
Competitors aren't standing still. Chrome was missing many important features such as bookmark management when it launched in September, but Google has rapidly been fleshing out the product, including the addition of rough Mac OS X and Linux versions in May. Also notably, Google has continued to drive its V8 JavaScript engine ever faster, and Chrome's extensions mechanism is rapidly maturing.

Meanwhile, Apple released Safari 4 in June for both Windows and Mac OS X. Safari uses much of the same WebKit engine for rendering Web pages that Chrome, but it uses a different JavaScript engine, called Nitro by Apple and Squirrelfish Extreme at WebKit. Apple is loudly banging the "fastest browser" drum for Safari, and though the claim is grand, it does spotlight that performance is a major issue in today's browser competition.

Don't view Firefox developers as complacent, though. Performance improvements are a top priority in the successor to Firefox 3.5, called Namoroka, including fast launch speed, a present Chrome advantage. The new version is scheduled for release in early to mid-2010.

A host of other improvements also are under development. Among them:

Weave is a project to synchronize bookmarks, passwords, preferences, and other settings across multiple browsers, including the mobile version of Firefox, code-named Fennec. Weave also can sync personas, another new feature that lets people customize Firefox's appearance.

• A project called Electrolysis is designed to improve isolation between different tabs and between plug-ins and tabs, improving security and reliability.

Jetpack is designed to be a new framework for add-ons that can be developed using Web page design standards. That's the same approach Google chose for Chrome extensions.

• People use more and more tabs, and tab management is tougher, so work is under way to address the issue--perhaps with an automatically expanding or contracting tab list on the left edge of the browser instead of on a strip along the top.

Snowl is a system that tries to unify messaging operations, whether messages originate from e-mail, Web forums, RSS feeds, social networks, or other sources.

Ubiquity is designed to let Firefox interpret a wide range of formal or informal text commands, turning the browser into a more general window on the world.

Also, Firefox has some incumbent advantages of its own--enough market share that Web developers need to test their sites for Firefox compatibility and a range of add-ons to customize the browser, for example. Those are strong enough to keep people from rapidly switching away even if they're trying other browsers, too.

So yes, Firefox has abundant new competitors. But it hasn't been pushed aside.

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