What's new in Firefox 2.0

It's a new day for Mozilla. Only a few days after OneStat reported that its Firefox Web browser has reached nearly 13% market share worldwide, the open-source software development organization this morning released Beta 1 of Firefox 2.0. With this release, Firefox devotees will be widely testing the next version of the browser.

According to scheduling documents linked to from the Mozilla site, the developers expect Beta 2 to arrive in about four weeks, followed by two or three release candidates during early September, and a possible final release of Firefox 2.0 on Sept. 26. Of course, all of these milestone dates are subject to change. But with the release of Beta 1, Firefox 2.0's final release is no longer a distant eventuality.

To test Firefox 2.0 Beta 1 for yourself, download the one in your preferred platform version and language at the Mozilla FTP site, or use these direct download links for U.S. English versions:

- Windows (ftp://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/2.0b1/win32/en-US/Firefox%20Setup%202.0%20Beta%201.exe)

- Linux (ftp://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/2.0b1/linux-i686/en-US/firefox-2.0b1.tar.gz)

- Macintosh (ftp://ftp.mozilla.org/pub/mozilla.org/firefox/releases/2.0b1/mac/en-US/Firefox%202.0%20Beta%201.dmg)

Be sure to uninstall any previous version of Firefox prior to installing this new beta. Firefox stores important user profile information, including your bookmarks, previously installed extensions, themes and plug-ins, and settings data. You may want to make a backup copy of your user profile. For more information, see backing up your profile on the Mozilla site. You should do this before installing Firefox 2.0 Beta 1.

New Features

Mozilla was forced to push off some of its more ambitious goals for Firefox 2.0 to Firefox 3.0. The list of what's new, as a result, is modest, and yet the changes are all welcome.

Firefox 2.0 adds built-in phishing protection. According to Mozilla documents, it warns users when they encounter suspected Web forgeries. Like Microsoft's Internet Explorer 7, the Firefox antiphishing feature offers to switch the browser to a safe page (the user's home page). The phishing protection feature works by checking the currently loaded site against a list of known phishing sites that will be generated by user input and maintained by Mozilla. During Beta 1, the list of sites is limited, but Mozilla says it will grow as users contribute. For more information about the new phishing protection feature, see the Firefox 2 phishing protection FAQ. (http://www.mozilla.org/projects/bonecho/anti-phishing/)

If you visit a site that Firefox 2.0 deems to be a phishing site, this warning pops-up. Clicking "Get me out of here" opens your home page.

Firefox adds a built-in RSS and XML feed-viewing capability, which works like the Feedview extension available for earlier versions of Firefox and a similar feature in IE7. The new functionality lets you click on an RSS or XML link to see headlines and descriptions of the items in feeds. A Subscribe Now button lets you save the feed URL.

This new RSS and XML feed preview functionality creates a newspaperlike presentation of any RSS or XML feed link you click.

Even better, Firefox's simple but effective default feed dialog lets you choose which feed reader to save new feed subscriptions to. You can configure both feed-reading programs and Internet-based services in Firefox 2.0's simple "Choose a Feed Reader" dialog -- a well-implemented feature.

The new Choose a Feed Reader dialog lets you configure Internet- or software-based feed readers. It also lets you select a default reader to which new feed subscriptions will be added.

Although it's a small feature, Firefox 2.0's new inline spell checker will be highly appreciated by bloggers, forum posters and anyone who types into Web-based text fields and sometimes makes typos and spelling mistakes. The feature works almost exactly like Microsoft Word's spell checking, and you can add a list of custom spellings for proper names and terms that aren't in dictionaries.

A new feature Mozilla calls bookmark microsummaries allows bookmark titles to display a bit of text that represents the current state of that specific Web page. So, when you bookmark a Web page that has a microsummary, you can choose to display the microsummary as the title of the bookmark. For example, a weather site might choose to display the current temperature and barometric pressure in its microsummary. Or you could write some code that would pull that information from the site. Either way, a "microsummary generator" would need to be created for that purpose.

For more information, including a link to a handful of microsummary sites you can test this out with, see this Mozilla Using Microsummaries wiki page. In initial testing, only some of example sites were working. Try the BBC link first.

It's all about the tabs

Mozilla has added several minor refinements to its tabbed browsing features, the best of which is a new Undo Close Tab function. Simply right-click the tab bar, and the last tab you closed during the current session will be resurrected when you choose the "Undo Close Tab" item from the pop-up menu. This functionality was previously available through a wide range of Firefox extensions, so formally including it in Firefox is a good move.

Right-click the tab bar and this pop-up menu will appear. If you've closed a tab in the current browser session, you can reopen it -- and the Web page loaded in it -- by choosing Undo Close Tab.

There's also a new Session Restore function that automatically offers to reopen all the tabs that were open in Firefox prior to some unexpected problem, such as a program or operating system crash or a power outage. Mozilla's implementation is particularly good in that when you restart Firefox after such an event, it offers the option to open the previously open tabs, or not. Many of the extensions that added this functionality for Firefox 1.x either always opened the previous tabs or required you to find a menu item somewhere to reopen them. This is the best way to handle it.

When you experience a crash or power outage, Firefox can now resurrect all the tabs you had open when the problem occurred, saving you time and aggravation.

Something perhaps not as good is the addition of the "X" Close button to every tab you open in Firefox 2.0. For power tab users, those buttons take up space, shrinking the tab labels so they're harder to read as you open more tabs. The issue is basic: How does one close a tab? Mozilla has added an about:config setting (browser.tabs.closeButtons) in Firefox 2.0 that gives you four options (0-3, with 1 being the default). The 0 option of this setting displays the Close button only on the active tab. That's a pretty good compromise, but when there's only one tab open, the X button doesn't appear. The existing Beta 1 default may make the most sense, but there are two recommendations Mozilla should consider including these:

1. Expose these X button options in the user interface on the Tabs page of the Options dialog instead of burying them in about:config.

2. Since you open a new tab by double-clicking any blank area of the tab bar, the most intuitive and physically easy way to close a tab should be to double-click that tab. That functionality should be added to the tab browsing system in Firefox.

Firefox 2.0 adds space-robbing X buttons to every tab, making it more obvious how to close tabs, but also using up horizontal space on the tab bar.

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Several other additions and functional underpinnings round out Firefox 2.0. The new Add-Ons Manager combines extensions and themes, and adds a new Restart Firefox button to help people remember to do this for newly installed extensions and themes to take effect. A new search dialog makes it easier to change your default search engine provider, and to add additional providers. The Search box is wider, and you can move it around the tool bar area. It also offers a type-ahead drop-down list of previously searched terms.

Invisible additions include support for JavaScript 17, support for client-side session and persistent storage, updates to the extension system and a new Windows installer. Improvements to memory usage was a goal in earlier documents, but it's not clear whether Mozilla has been able to do that.

It's too early to draw final conclusions about Firefox 2.0, but Mozilla hasn't moved backward in any of the changes it's making to the browser. It's not a dramatically improved version. At first blush, it looks no different. But the collection of small additions and improvements make it a decidedly better browser than the 1.x versions. Think of it as a return volley to Microsoft's IE7 (itself not a dramatic upgrade) and you've got the sense of Firefox 2.0. Even so, you'll likely prefer the new Mozilla browser over the old one almost immediately.

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Scot Finnie

Computerworld
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