10 things to drool over in Firefox 4

Speed, simplicity, privacy, security and HTML5 support are some features that promise to make Mozilla's new browser a winner

Mozilla's Firefox 4 is now officially expected to debut on Tuesday March 22, following hard on the heels of Google's Chrome 10 and Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9.

With so many new browser releases coming out in such rapid succession, it stands to reason that at least some users are going to need some help figuring out which now works best for them.

Toward that end, I had a chat earlier today with Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla's director of Firefox development, to get a sense of what the final release of Firefox 4 will bring. Here are some of the highlights of what we can expect.

1. More Speed

With its new JägerMonkey JavaScript engine, Firefox 4 delivers huge performance enhancements, Nightingale told me, including faster startup times, graphics rendering and page loads. In fact, in performance tests on the Kraken, SunSpider and V8 benchmarks, for example, Firefox 4 blew away previous versions of the browser, with performance results between three and six times better.

Firefox 4 also outdid Chrome 10, Opera 11.1 and Internet Explorer 9 in the Kraken benchmark, as GigaOM recently noted. Bottom line: It's blazingly fast.

2. Less Clutter

Tabs are now given top visual priority in Firefox 4 so as to enable more efficient and intuitive browsing. In addition to its new "tabs on top" layout, however, the software now also offers a number of other features to make it simpler and more streamlined.

A Switch to Tab feature, for instance, helps reduce tab clutter by automatically calling up an already-tabbed URL rather than duplicating it all over again. "It took my tab list from 80 to 90 down to 50 or 60," Nightingale said.

"The slowest part of browsing is often the user," he explained. "If you have 200 tabs open and you can't find the right one, that's the slow part."

Then, too, there are App Tabs, which allow the user to take sites they always have open -- such as Gmail or Twitter -- off the tab bar and give them a permanent home in the browser. Then, no matter where the user visits, those tabs are always visible on the browser's left-hand edge. Not only that, but each App Tab's icon glows to indicate when there's been activity on that site, such as new mail coming in.

When Firefox gets reloaded, it boosts loading speed by focusing first on the active page and App Tabs, and then loading other tabs in gradual succession after that, Nightingale explained.

Further reducing clutter is Firefox 4's Firefox Button, meanwhile, which displays all menu items in a single button for easy access.

3. Panorama

Though it began as an add-on, Firefox 4's new Panorama feature is another one designed to battle tab clutter. Using it, Web surfers can drag and drop their tabs into manageable groups that can be organized, named and arranged intuitively and visually.

In previous versions of the browser, users with 20 tabs, for example, didn't have an easy way to separate out the ones that were related. "Some people would put tabs in different windows, but that just moves the clutter," Nightingale explained.

Panorama, on the other hand, now provides a visual canvas on which tabs can be logically organized into groups representing work, home, hobbies or research, for example.

4. Sync

Another new feature that started life as an add-on is Sync, which synchronizes an individual's multiple copies of Firefox across various platforms. So, a user might look up directions to a restaurant from their work computer, for example, and then be able to easily find and pull down those same directions from their Android phone on the road, Nightingale explained.

"Wherever you are, Firefox knows you," he added. "It gives you so much freedom."

For privacy, all such information is bundled on the user's local machine and encrypted before it goes onto the network, he added.

5. Do Not Track

With a single check box, Firefox 4 users can ensure that any time the browser requests a Web page, it will send along a header specifying that the user does not want their browsing behavior to be tracked.

In theory, advertisers and Web sites could disregard such requests, Nightingale noted -- as they could equivalent mechanisms in other browsers as well. On the other hand, enforcing them is not a technical problem, he noted. "It's a matter of trust -- enforcing on the technical side doesn't help."

What Nightingale hopes is that advertisers and Web sites will use the new capability as an opportunity to show respect for consumers' wishes and to demonstrate leadership when it comes to privacy. In beta versions of the software, he noted, most wanted to learn more about how to comply and get involved.

"I'm keen to see how ad networks and content sites respond," Nightingale concluded. With the new technology enabled, "everyone you're interacting with knows your intent."

6. Under the Hood

A number of other features -- some visible to users, others not -- will also appear in Firefox 4, including support for the WebM format for HD-quality video; 3D graphics via WebGL; elegant animations through the use of CSS3; and multitouch support.

Then, too, there's super-fast graphics acceleration with Direct2D and Direct3D on Windows, XRender on Linux, and OpenGL on Mac enabled by default on supported hardware.

7. Improved Security

With HTTP Strict Transport Security, or HSTS, sites can now make sure information is always encrypted, thereby preventing attackers from intercepting sensitive data. Previously, a hacker sitting in a Starbucks store, for example, could potentially watch Web surfers enter a bank's home page, which is not encrypted, and hijack them from there, Nightingale noted.

With Content Security Policy, or CSP, meanwhile, Firefox 4 ensures that cross-site scripting attacks can't infect a site such as through its comments section, he added.

I should also note that because Firefox's code is open, it's not subject to any vendor's preset patch schedule. Rather, its security is constantly being reviewed and improved.

8. HTML5

Firefox 4's new HTML5 parser and full support for Web video, audio, drag & drop, and file handling mean that it's capable of supporting the latest Web environments.

9. Multiplatform Support

Whereas Microsoft's IE9 can be used only on Windows -- and only Vista and Windows 7 at that -- Firefox, as always, is multiplatform. So, whether you're on Windows, Linux or a Mac, you can enjoy its powerful new features.

10. The Community Touch

Last but not least, whereas proprietary browsers such as IE9 are developed by Microsoft's team of paid developers to reflect their own vision of what users want, Firefox has been shaped significantly by the people who use it. In fact, between 30 percent and 40 percent of its code was developed by the community, Nightingale told me. It's hard to imagine a better way to make sure a product delivers what users want.

With so many exciting new capabilities, Firefox users have a lot to look forward to in this new release. So, for that matter, do the legions of Internet Explorer users who will sooner or later make the switch.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

Tags open sourcebrowser securityGoogleapplicationsMicrosoftbrowserssoftwareinternetmozillaFirefox

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)

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