Mozilla has launched the initial beta of Firefox 4, promising additional beta versions every few weeks as it works on refining the browser. And refinement is crucial, given the increasingly competitive nature of the Web browser market.
"Your feedback is essential to help shape the product, which is why we're launching now to hear from you early in our development process," Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox development at Mozilla, posted July 6 on the Mozilla blog. New beta versions, he said, will be released "every two to three weeks." You can download the Firefox 4 beta here.
The beta's new features offer a mix of aesthetic and performance improvements. In the design category, tabs now exist atop the browser windows by default in the Windows builds, a feature that is expected soon for the Mac and Linux versions. In all three browser versions, the Stop and Reload icons have been merged into a single button, and the Smart Location Bar lets the user search for-and switch to-any open tabs.
The browser also includes native support for HTML5, and segregates browser plug-ins into separate processes, the better to protect browser sessions from certain types of crashes. The Firefox Bookmarks tool bar has been replaced with a Bookmarks button by default.
For Web developers, the big changes to Firefox 4 include an "experimental 'Heads Up Display'" analysis tool that lets developers "peek into dynamic Websites"; "simpler add-on development" with the new Jetpack SDK (software development kit); the ability to "build real-time, online interactions," such as chatting, through WebSockets; and an HTML5 parser.
Although most software products are intentionally kept under wraps throughout their development, Mozilla has made a point of making Firefox 4's gestation as open an event as possible. "We work in the open, socializing our plans early and often to gather feedback and build excitement in our worldwide community," Beltzner wrote May 10 on his personal blog, going on to say the organization's goals for Firefox 4 included making it "super-duper fast" and "enabling new open, standard Web technologies (HTML5 and beyond)."
According to research company Net Applications, Microsoft's Internet Explorer holds 60.32 percent of the browser market, followed by Firefox at 23.81 percent, Chrome at 7.24 percent, Safari at 4.85 percent and Opera at 2.27 percent.
At first glance, that places Firefox in a comfortable position-and apparently gaining ground against Internet Explorer, as the latter's share has declined from 66.97 percent in August 2009. However, adoption of Chrome is steadily increasing-from 2.84 percent in August 2009 to the current 7.24 percent. Safari and Opera are also trending upward, but much more slowly.
Chrome's rise, as much as Internet Explorer's decline, suggests the fundamental fluidity of the browser market. And that fact alone would drive Mozilla to develop a new version of Firefox that's been streamlined with performance optimizations and faster navigation; as other tech companies have learned, a product's dominance of a particular sector can slip away within the course of a year, or even months, if new versions aren't pushed into the ecosystem.