18 months after Firefox 2 launch, 3 years of development for much of the underlying Gecko code. Eight alphas, 5 betas, and 3 release candidates later, Firefox 3 is here.
Firefox 3 is not a timid release. It has been designed since the beginning with the specific goal of simplifying the web experience, creating a “personal web” and in the longer term, delivering the “browser as information broker” vision where it identifies pieces of information in web pages and passes these pieces among the user selected web services, making them work together for a richer overall experience.
Firefox 3 in not a quiet release either: Mozilla wants to set a Guinness World Record for the most downloaded software in a 24 hours time window and is airing live what’s going on in its Toronto offices, at Mozilla HQ in California and South Korea, while the counter approaches 2 million downloads in the first 5 hours since its release.
Meet Firefox 3
Changes start to get noticed in the installer which has grown by about 1 MB compared to Firefox 2 even while the DOM Inspector, a web developer tool, was removed and made available as an extension only now. The help documentation has also been removed and points instead to online Mozilla Support.
Another change is that Firefox installs itself as the default browser by default. Some users may cry fault for this as neither Opera nor Safari do the same during installation. But I am not sure if Mozilla’s way is more invasive as both Safari and Opera, and previously Firefox, do prompt to become the default browser with an already checked box during the first launch.
If you are a Firefox 2 user already, perhaps nothing will please you more than hearing about the great job Mozilla developers have done in optimizing Firefox’s resources utilization, to become the web browsers that uses the least memory of all current versions. That is thanks to a new memory cycle collector that releases memory back to the operating system that is no longer in use by an impolite module or extension. Other improvements include smarter large image storage in memory, and better tab memory caching.
Firefox 3 on Windows, also includes profile guided optimizations (PGO) a technique that compiles the code twice, the second one adding a series of tweaks based on the first pass analysis.
Firefox 3 introduces the concept of “personal web”: that chunk of the actual big old web you care about and is defined by what you visit, what you save and what you call it. Places, is a SQLite database that tracks all pages you visit and bookmark and provides extensive, powerful querying capabilities.
To access your personal web, you use the Library, an integrated History and Bookmarks user interface where you can search for keywords and save the search as a smart bookmark that automatically refreshes as you keep browsing on.
The Library also adds backup and restore UI so it is easier to recover a damaged file or incorrectly deleted bookmark.
Bookmarking has been simplified to a single click task: need to keep a page? just click on the star icon and it is saved to the Unfiled Bookmaks folder. Want to add more details or save it in a specific folder? Click the star again and specify the bookmarks folder and add or reuse tags to mark that page.
You should also note that the Bookmarks menu and the Bookmarks Toolbar are separate objects now: one to shows your bookmarks in the Bookmarks menu while the other holds what goes in the bookmarks toolbar.
As good as the library is, perhaps the most evident use of this new Places infrastructure and what really makes the “personal web” concept works is the new location bar, informally called “the awesome bar”.
Here’s why. In the past when you wanted to go back to a page you were sure to have visited, you had to remember at least the beginning of the name of the server that hosted that page. But that’s as unfriendly as it can be: addresses are for computers not people.
In Firefox 3, all you need to remember is most likely what the page was about. Potato pie? Sure, type it in. Firefox will look in your visited page titles, addresses and tags for a match, partial match, no matter in what order the words are entered, and show the title and the web address in the autocomplete menu. Select it and it magically comes back. In short, you’re now more likely to get back to the page you need.
If you enter “dig” looking for digg.com and Firefox doesn’t suggest that at the top of the list, just choose what you want and Firefox will learnas the suggestions are based on a score system that considers your past choices, as well as the frequency and recency you visit a web page.
Give it a spin. I believe this feature alone is the best Firefox 3 has to offer, justifies Places large resources investment and will become a landmark in Firefox and web browsers in general development. Once you get used to it, there is no turning back.
One of the most visible changes are the theme updates in all platforms with a strong emphasis in making Firefox feel as a native application on each operating system.
On Windows the theme is called Strata. Here’s how it looks on Vista.
And here is on Windows XP.
The Options window on Windows Vista with the new icons.
Mac OS X users get Firelight, a new Safari-like theme introduced with Beta 2, formerly known as Proto.
Linux users get Tango, a theme that blends with Gnome native icons.
The back and forward buttons have been combined in a single keyhole-shaped widget with a single history menu now featured in all platforms except Linux.
According to the new guidelines, consistency across platforms is kept through icons shape while OS integration is provided by texture. In Linux case, it’s very hard to set one due to the many available distributions and their particular themes.
You can finally resize the search bar, just drag the separator between it and the location bar.
Developers are aiming to deliver better operating system integration in Firefox 3. This will be most notable for Mac OS X and Linux users who now get native widgets like text boxes, menus, check boxes, icons, button order and orientation following each OS guidelines.
Mac OS X users get integration with Growl, a popular centralized notification system, while Windows Vista gets native looking menus, blue icons and glossy media bar in Library that makes it blend better with overall Vista look.
The Page Information dialog has been reviewed to become more organized and informative and allows to set all site specific preference from a single location.
And in Mac OS X
Several improvements on this area as well. Firefox not only warns you when closing several tabs and windows at once but also prompts if you want to save the currently open tab set: a good catch and a good way to introduce this helpful feature to new users.
Eye-candy-wise, tabs now scroll smoothly when there is a tab overflow or a new tab is opened beyond the visible area. Hovering on tabs shows a soft highlight instead of a sudden style change.
Another welcomed addition is the option to duplicate tabs and move them across windows. To duplicate, press Ctrl while dragging a tab. To move, just drag it and drop it in the window you want it.