Mozilla picks up Firefox development pace with 'sprint' updates

Slates pair of minor upgrades in next six months; major update coming in late 2010

Mozilla has switched to a quick-paced "sprint" cycle for Firefox that it hopes will bring new features to users faster, the company's browser architect said today.

"We decided we not only needed a way to be more nimble, but that we have a lot of great improvements we want to do every week and every month," said Vlad Vukicevic, Firefox architect.

"That was the thinking behind the 'sprint' development, that we have a bunch of projects that we assign to one or two people, who then have two to three weeks to maybe finish [the feature] or at least get some data on it," Vukicevic said. "Then we can decide if we want to do another sprint."

The change means that the next two Firefox upgrades will be minor updates that are pushed through development in a matter of a few months, a big difference from the last two versions of the browser, which included major changes to the interface or the underlying technology, or both.

According to Mozilla's current schedule , for example, Firefox 3.6, the follow-on to June's version 3.5, will ship in the October-to-November time frame. The next update, Firefox 3.7, is now set to release around March 2010.

The major update, tentatively tagged as Firefox 4.0, won't launch until late 2010, perhaps in the October-to-November time period.

Even with a roadmap, however, Vukicevic said a lot remains provisional. "The only thing we're certain of is that we'll do at least one release a year from now on," he said. "But whether there's a second release this year, for example, that's up in the air."

Mozilla last upgraded Firefox in June, when it released Firefox 3.5, an update that in 2008 had been cast as a minor upgrade, but which grew beyond that definition as developers ladled on more features, including the new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine. Hard-to-quash bugs also contributed to delays.

Picking up the development pace came out of Mozilla's experience with Firefox 3.0 and 3.5. "Back when we were doing Firefox 3.0, we were adding so much new stuff that it was very hard to wrap up the release," admitted Vukicevic.

Although Vukicevic denied that the shorter schedules were a direct response to heated competition among browser makers, his explanation hinted as much. "The schedules are driven by (the fact) that we want to get new features into the hands of our users as fast as possible," he said.

So far this year, Microsoft , Apple , Google and Opera Software have all shipped new versions of their browsers, putting the battle back into the browser wars. Since Firefox shipped 3.5, Google has delivered Chrome 3.0 and Opera has launched verson 10 of its browser.

According to Web metrics company Net Applications, Microsoft's Internet Explorer (IE) accounted for 67 per cent of the browser market in August , while Firefox was second with 23 per cent. Chrome, Opera and Apple's Safari, meanwhile, held shares of 3 per cent, 2 per cent and 4 per cent, respectively.

Mozilla will also provide the Firefox 3.6 and 3.7 upgrades differently than it has previous editions, said Vukicevic. Rather than make a big deal of those updates, and offer them via its traditional upgrade process, which extends over several months, Mozilla will probably push them to users with the same kind of update method it uses for security fixes. In that case, users will be notified within 48 hours that the update is available.

"We want to focus on the large updates," said Vukicevic, "and get users excited bout the major updates. The minor updates, though, we want to make them as transparent as possible."

Among the changes planned for Firefox 3.6, Mozilla has highlighted several, including "Personas," lightweight themes that don't require a browser restart; more performance improvements to TraceMonkey; support for Windows 7 features such as "Aero Peek;" and a speed boost to Firefox's location bar, which does automatic lookups in the browser's history database.

Firefox 4.0, on the other hand, will be the first Mozilla browser to include Electrolysis, a project that aims to separate each tab and add-on to its own process, which will prevent the application from crashing when a Web site, Web application or extension fails. Google uses that multi-process model in its Chrome browser.

Mozilla has also recently posted information on its Web site about the user interface changes it wants to make in the Windows versions of Firefox 3.7 and 4.0.

Firefox 3.6 is available now as an alpha , which Mozilla issued more than a month ago. The company intends to ship the first, and only, beta version of the November update later this month.

Firefox 3.6 Alpha 1 can be downloaded from Mozilla's developer site in editions for Windows, Mac and Linux.

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Gregg Keizer

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