Mozilla starts dropping features from Firefox 4

Released Beta 5 last week, now pushing to lock in features for final

Mozilla, which launched the latest beta of Firefox 4 last week, has started to drop features from the still-under-construction browser.

Firefox 4 Beta 5 shipped Sept. 7, and included support for a new audio API (application programming interface) that allows developers to tap raw audio data from within the browser, as well as support for HTTP Strict Transport Security, a Web security protocol that lets site designers force Firefox to automatically use a secure connection.

The latter is meant to help stymie "man-in-the-middle" attacks, in which hackers essentially eavesdrop on users' Web traffic -- most often at public Wi-Fi hotspots -- in the hope of snatching clear-language transmission of passwords or credit card numbers.

Firefox 4 also switched on Windows hardware acceleration by default in Beta 5; Mozilla had included the technology in August's Beta 4, but had left it turned off, requiring users to edit the browser's "about:config" file if they wanted to try it out.

Firefox 4, like rival Microsoft 's Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), relies on Windows' Direct2D API to boost browser performance by shifting some chores from a computer's central processor to the graphics processor.

The hardware acceleration switched on in Beta 5 requires Windows Vista or Windows 7 ; the more popular Windows XP lacks the necessary graphics infrastructure, a fact that's prompted Microsoft to drop XP from IE9's supported operating systems.

Mozilla isn't going to that extreme. Although Firefox 4 won't boost content rendering in Windows XP, Mozilla does plan to increase the speed of "compositing" -- the process of assembling the various pieces of a site -- in the nine-year-old operating system by leveraging the Direct3D API in a future preview.

But as Mozilla's self-imposed deadline for building a feature-complete beta nears, the company has also started dumping features it once hoped to squeeze into the upgrade.

First to go was Account Manager, which Mozilla ditched late last month.

The beefed-up password manager was supposed to take full responsibility for site sign-ons, relieving users of the chore of remembering and then entering various usernames and passwords. An experimental add-on is still available, but only works with a limited number of sites, including Google , Facebook and Yahoo !

Mozilla has also dumped "Inspector," a tool aimed at Web designers and developers who want to drill down for more information on each element in an HTML page.

"Given the number of outstanding bugs and some widget-related problems, there was no telling how many additional bugs would be discovered during the run up to final release," explained Mozilla developer Rob Campbell last Friday about the decision to pull Inspector.

"Making that decision now allows us to focus on shoring up the Web Console..., [which] is the one that will most-likely affect Web site developers the most," Campbell added.

Another feature, silent updates , may also get the axe, according to progress notes posted on Mozilla's site last week. Silent updates would be Mozilla's answer to Chrome's behind-the-scenes patching practice, at least on Windows.

As late as August, the feature was "on track" for Firefox 4, but has been tagged as "at risk" by Mozilla for the past two weeks.

The departure of Account Manager and Inspector, and the possible loss of silent updates won't mean Firefox 4 is devoid of new features. Currently on track to make it into the final build are several notable adds, including a new user interface, the applauded "Panorama" tab manager , and the significantly faster JaegerMonkey JavaScript engine.

Mozilla now plans to freeze Firefox 4's features -- locking in what will be included, dropping what won't -- on Wednesday, Sept. 15 in preparation for delivering Beta 6 later this month.

A final version of Firefox 4 is to ship before the end of this year.

Firefox 4 Beta 5 can be downloaded for Windows, Mac and Linux from Mozilla's site in 35 different languages.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld (US)

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