A Deep Look to Firefox 3 Beta 3

Tomorrow, Mozilla will release Firefox 3 Beta 3, the eleventh milestone in the longest development time for a Firefox revision since the initial Firefox 1.0 on 2004. The eight alphas and trio of betas (so far), if anything, are a reflection of the long list of enhancements it (Firefox) and the underlying Gecko rendering engine, are bringing along.

Visual Refresh

Without a doubt the most visible change introduced in this beta are the theme updates in all platforms. On Windows XP and Vista, a large part of the planned new XP icons has been added to the main toolbar, the Options window, the Download Manager, here and there.

Reception hasn’t been warm precisely as was to be expected: just the same happened when Firefox dropped the Qute theme for Winstripe around version 0.9, again with the updates just before 1.0 and yet again when Radiant Core updated Firefox 2.0 icons to its current washed out aspect.

I haven’t been a big fan of any Firefox default theme so far and it doesn’t seem Firefox 3′s will be an exception. But we’ll see. There are still theme updates pending, as well as small icons, and Vista icons.

The Options window on Windows XP with the new icons.

On the other hand, Mac OS X users seem to be more satisfied with the landing of Proto, a Safari-like theme introduced along with Beta 2. Linux users also get a very well integrated theme that uses native icons.


The back and forward buttons have been combined in a single keyhole-shaped widget featuring a single history menu. So far just Windows XP and Vista feature it but Mac OS X versions are ready and waiting to get in. An option to split the combined icons in the customize toolbar dialog is being considered.

We can also expect a revised throbber (the connection activity indicator) coming soon.


The Home button has been moved to the Bookmarks toolbar by default (but can be easily moved back) and the splitter that allows to resize the search and location bars when placed next to each other has become invisible.

Developers are aiming to deliver better operating system integration in Firefox 3. This will be most notorious for Mac OS X and Linux users who will now get native widgets like text boxes, menus, check boxes, icons, button order and orientation following each OS guidelines.

On Linux, Beta 3 adds native file open and print dialogs that provide image thumbnails and more printing options.


Mac OS X users get integration with Growl, a popular centralized notification system, while Windows Vista gets native looking menus and new icons that should be added for the next beta.

The Page Information dialog has been reviewed to become more organized and informative and allows to set all site specific preference from a single location.

Places

A much announced and expected feature is Places, the integrated history and bookmarks manager interface powered by SQLite, a small open source database engine that provides much more robust querying capabilities.

With Places you are able to search your history, tags and bookmarks with a fully fledged search interface. You can select where to search (History, Bookmarks Menu, Bookmarks Toolbar, All Bookmarks or the selected folder), what to search (visited date, web address or title), combine criteria and then save the search as a Smart Bookmark that updates as your personal web grows and changes.

The Library, Places manager, also adds backup and restore UI so it is easier to recover a damaged file or incorrectly deleted bookmark.

Tagging is a new Firefox feature tightly related with Places and some of the changes to the location bar: click on an empty star icon in the location bar to save the current page as a bookmark. Click it again and you can specify a certain folder to save the bookmark to and you can add tags which you can later use to perform searches.

You may also notice that the Go button is gone. It only appears when you are entering some text in the location bar and you may actually need to press it.

The Location Bar

The autocomplete list that appears when you start entering letters in the location bar is no longer restricted to web addresses but also looks into bookmark and history page titles and tags which make it more comprehensive.

Suggestions are are shown in two different lines and colors for page titles and addresses, which according to studies on human cognition, makes it easier for us to focus on what we are looking for. So, if the user knows she is entering part of a web address or a page title it will be easier for her to find what she’s looking for. Highlighting the match result also helps to direct the users attention.

I believe this feature alone is the best Firefox 3 has to offer, justifies Places large resources investment and will become a landmark in Firefox and web browsers in general development. Once you get used to it, there is no turning back.

Tabbed Browsing

On tabbed browsing, Firefox will not only warn you when closing several tabs and windows at once but will prompt if you want to save the currently open tab set: a good catch and a good way to introduce this helpful feature to new users.

Tabs now scroll smoothly, and, new in Beta 3, you can sort of duplicate tabs when you press Ctrl while dragging a tab. A similar feature allows to drag a tab to another window. It’s not actual duplication or moving though, since in both cases a new navigation occurs and the original tab history is not preserved, but still a helpful addition I hope to see perfected in the next version.

Web Experience

Firefox can save site specific preferences. For example you could allow just some pages to use AJAX, set a specific spell checker language, images, etc. Firefox 3 will remember the zoom level you have applied for a certain site and will zoom automatically the next time you visit it.

Net protocols (like irc, news, webcal and mailto) and certain documents handling can be passed to web services. For example, Yahoo Mail or Gmail may become your default application for mailto: links. For this, the previous web feeds page has been extended to the Options window for all content and protocols. Beta 3 distinguishes podcasts and video podcast feeds from regular ones so you can specify a different application for each.

Media feeds are displayed with a link to the media file in feed preview mode.

By default, web sites can’t move or resize Firefox via JavaScript. A list of authorized web sites can be maintained through Advanced JavaScript Settings in the Content page in Options.

Search Engines

The search engine manager lets you set and change keywords for search engines. With keywords, if you associate the w keyword with Wikipedia (now a default search engine), you could enter w hawaii in the location bar and search Wikipedia for Hawaii.

Downloads

One of the most requested features: downloads can be paused and resumed across sessions, limited only by the server capabilities. Also, on Windows, downloaded files are automatically passed to the installed anti-virus if present and honor Windows Vista parental controls.

As seen in previous betas, the Download Manager has received a serious face lift as an easier to track download list.

Beta 3 adds a cool new status bar notification that provides summarized status of current downloads. You can click it to open the Download Manager.

Add-ons

The Add-ons Manager has been integrated with Mozilla Add-ons, Mozilla’s official extensions and themes repository, providing recommendations, search, rating and add-ons install without leaving Firefox.

Together with previously added Plugins page, which allows easy plugin enabling and disabling, it makes it a powerful control panel for Firefox enhancements.

When installing, updating, disabling or enabling back an add-on, an information bar is displayed to remind a restart is needed for changes to apply, and a restart button. Plus, just installed themes are automatically selected so Firefox uses it after the next restart.

Among other minor tweaks: FTP and gopher listings get a better styled and functional page where the list can be sorted by name, size and date by clicking the appropriate header, and a warning is displayed when accessing advanced preferences (about:config).

Security

In the security front, Firefox will check visited sites with a list of known malware sites provided by stopbadware.org and served by Google for sites as a way to prevent spyware, rootkits, viruses, dialers and other kinds of malware from even being offered to you.

A rewritten password manager now unobtrusively prompts to store an entered password in the information bar and after trying a logon so you know if it is the correct one or not and avoid cluttering autocomplete lists.

Identifying authentic sites and avoiding fake ones is now easier with the addition of the site button which provides details about the identity of the current web site. While the largest part of the web has no verified identity, financial institutions and similar usually do and it makes the site button in the location bar to change color and size so you can know with a glimpse.

As great as add-ons are they are also a liability and have proved they can become a security vector. Firefox 3 requires add-ons updates to happen over an encrypted connection (to block malicious sites purporting the update site) or the add-on developer to sign it with a digital signature so updates can be verified to be from the same source. This will prevent middle-man attacks where bad guys could fake an update site address to serve malicious software.

Under the hood

The list of changes for Gecko is not short either and benefit not only Firefox but all “powered by Mozilla” products including Thunderbird, Flock, SeaMonkey, Joost, Miro, Songbird and more.

Since Alpha 1, Firefox 3 passes the Acid2 test, a popular test of a browser styling standard compatibility. Firefox can use color profiles embedded on pictures and images to better replicate the original environment conditions as light and focus, thanks to new color management.

Discontinuous selections of text and images are now possible for better control on what you copy or print from a web page.

A biggie: page zoom magnifies the complete page and not only text. This is a much requested feature and a must for Mozilla plans for a Mobile Firefox.

Web developers can mark certain web page components such as images and scripts to be available while offline. In practice you could be able to compose emails or write documents though a web service while disconnected from the Internet.

Some interesting tricks that will please JavaScript developers: the ability to load local files for local use, cross site AJAX (XMLHttpRequest), native JSON support and most notably, FUEL, a library of Firefox programming interfaces that will ease the development of new extensions and ensure better practices (such as memory management) for common Firefox tasks.

A much needed memory cycle collector is now in place and it should take care of freeing memory no longer used by modules that requested it but failed to release it properly. This will improve to optimize Firefox’s memory footprint.

Support for editable content, so a user can change portions of a web page marked by the author.

The MySpell spell-checking engine has been replaced with Hunspell which does a better job handling complex languages including Asians, Hungarian, Basque, etc.

For Gecko 1.9, Mozilla switched to open source Cairo rendering engine for better rendering performance. The change also enables easy PDF printing capabilities but it is only possible through an extension right now though.

More beautiful animated images are possible with animated PNGs (APNG): a full 16 million color palette and partial transparency will hopefully sweep GIF images in the future. While APNG was rejected as a standard PNG extension last year, Opera has announced it will support the format in future versions.

Proprietary TalkBack, the tool for reporting crashes to Mozilla included with Firefox and Thunderbird, has been replaced with open source Breakpad (formerly Airbag).


Socorro, is a server crash reporting tool that will help developers track the most recurring crashes and identify stability and performance bugs. Users can see their submitted crashes entering about:crashes in the location bar.

Beta 4

There will be a fourth beta and it is expected quite soon. Probably by Febrary’s end. Release candidates could start by mid-March and hopefully on schedule for a first quarter final release.

Not much is left for the next beta: more theme retouches in all platforms, Vista icons, plus more retouches to Places and several other areas, some of them already available in the latest nightlies that followed Beta 3 freeze.

According to the latest meeting minutes, the revamped location bar’s autocomplete font size and colors could be reviewed to address some common complaints about it being too obtrusive. Support for multi-word searches is also planned, so for example entering star and then wii, will filter out starbucks while keeping that cool Super Mario Galaxy guide in the results.

Add-ons-wise, Firefox 3 support is moving fast and as much as 40% of the top extensions are keeping up with the betas and most likely to be ready by final release. This is at least in part thanks to a very early documentation process and a continuous call for developers. We could see an easy transition for the large number of users that rely on extensions and themes for their best web experience.

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