ON July 30, the Mozilla Foundation released Mozilla Firefox 3.5. To their credit, the Mozilla servers did not buckle under the pressure of downloads like they did last year when they released Firefox 3.0.
I have had the chance to play with it since then and I just want to highlight some of the issues I have noticed with the new browser.
The first most prominent improvement to the browser is the support for HTML 5 which is somewhat geeky and light years ahead in terms of web technology. This sees the Firefox 3.5 natively supporting embedded audio and video files without the need for Adobe Flash or other codecs.
However, before you get too excited, this is only limited to the open source Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora audio and video. In simpler terms, the browser does not (yet) support the popular (and proprietary) mp3 and WMA files.
Besides the support for media files, Firefox 3.5 now fully supports the HTML 5 offline resource specification. Also supported is the HTML 5 drag and drop API allows support for dragging and dropping items within and between web sites. This also provides a simpler API for use by extensions and Mozilla-based applications.
HTML 5 also supports the canvas method which allows code to specifically create an ImageData object instead of requiring it to be done automatically. This can marginally improve performance of other methods by preventing them from having to create the object.
Firefox detractors have been quick t point out that HTML5 is rarely used in web design these days and by the time it will be standard, Internet Explorer will be having the technology as well.
However, that takes nothing away from Firefox’s endeavour to bring future technology to its fans. One other feature which comes with the new Firefox release is the location aware browsing and this has been received with mixed feelings by people.
This uses the Geolocation API, which allows web applications to obtain information about the user’s current location if a provider for that information is installed and enabled. Users who turn on the optional Location Aware feature allow sites to provide information such as points of interest and return useful data like maps based on the user’s location.
A code with UniversalXPConnect privileges can now monitor the list of available access points, getting information on their SSIDs, MAC addresses, and signal strength. This can be used in tandem with Geolocation to offer WiFi-based location service. For security reasons this feature is fully optional and the browser won’t share your location without your permission.
In terms of privacy, the new Firefox now supports Private Browsing mode where nothing is recorded about your session, including cookies, history, form field information and any other potentially private information. This is particularly important if you are browsing on someone’s computer of if you are in an Internet Café.
In addition, users can specify whether or not to include history and/or bookmarks in the location bar’s automated suggestions, so you can keep private web addresses from popping up unexpectedly while typing in the location bar.
Another privacy feature is the Clear Recent History which caters for users who would like to remove all private data or activity from browsing sessions. The feature allows the user to decide what data stays and what is removed.
Another feature called Forget this Site allows users to remove every trace of a site from the Firefox 3.5 browser.
Since Tuesday when the new browser became available for download, there has been some bitter arguments on the issue of the Private Browsing feature. Internet Explorer loyalists argue that Firefox copied the feature on IE8.
On the other hand, Firefox groupies argue that what has been added to the Firefox 3.5 is an idiot proof implementation (that’s a geek way of saying its been made simpler for the common folks) of the feature since it has been around since Firefox 2.0 where you could set the browser to clear everything on exit.
Not to be left out, Mac fans and Safari supporters in general claim Safari pioneered the feature. It all comes back to which camp you belong to.
Maybe the single most important feature that people have been eagerly looking forward to on the new browser is performance. The speed of Google Chrome has been a cause of concern in the Firefox camp and therefore a boost in performance was top on the agenda.
For those who love the heady stuff that make sci-fiction movies, Firefox 3.5 provides DNS prefetching, whereby it performs domain name resolution ahead of time for links included in the current page, in order to save time when links are actually clicked.
Other minor tweaks include “web workers,” which is a way for web content to run resource-intensive scripts in the background, a feature that will make the browser feel faster while also helping improve stability.
In my personal opinion, I think Firefox is now much faster than it was before but still its laps behind Google Chrome when it comes to raw speed.
As for aesthetics, some tweaks were done to the tabs making them more user friendly to use. Top on my list of favourites is the ability to tear off tabs and move them to new windows, something which Chrome and Safari have been doing natively while early versions of Firefox needed plug-in support to accomplish.
Other small features supported include mouse gesture events such as trackpad swipes. Firefox 3.5 also includes support for the multi-touch features of the latest and greatest MacBooks, but opted to leave out a “twist” motion that moves forward and back through browser tabs.
However, this can still be done with a little tweaking to the browser. Another significant option is the ability to undo a closed window and this is done by the (Ctrl + Shift + T) keys. Other cosmetic changes include the system restore functionality which has been revamped.
Now when your session crashes, Firefox doesn’t restore all your tabs but asks you which ones you want to restore, maybe so that you can leave out the offending tab.
While there is a carnival atmosphere in the Mozilla camp due to the release of Firefox 3.5, there are a couple of issues that can dampen the fun. First is Google Gears which has not yet been updated to work with Firefox 3.5.
I hope Google won’t employ the gutter tactics of Microsoft by deliberately delaying the update so that either people use Chrome to access Google Gears or stick with the older version of Firefox.
Also, the much-vaunted support for audio and video is limited to the Ogg Vorbis format which most Windows users have never heard off and isn’t mainstream except to the core Linux fanboys.
However, considering that Firefox is pioneering this trend, this is a step in the right direction and I won’t be too surprised to see Microsoft offering WMA audio support in IE9.