After a grueling Alpha development period that included no fewer than nine milestone releases, the first beta of Firefox 3 is now available for testing.
According to Mozilla developers, the Firefox 3 Beta 1 milestone fixes over 11,000 bugs and has almost 2 million lines of code changes in comparison with the current Firefox 2.x browser.
Beyond just bug fixes, Firefox 3 Beta 1 includes a long list of browsing, security, usability and performance improvements over the 2.x version of Firefox.
While Firefox 2.x includes the Google-developed Safe Browsing extension, Firefox 3 Beta 1 provides even greater protection with a one-click info button. All a user needs to do is click on the "favicon" (a 16x16 icon in the browser navigation bar that accompanies URLs) to get information on the identity and ownership of a site.
Plug-in security also gets some attention in Beta 1 with an improved mechanism to perform secure plug-in updates. The new version will also automatically disable older insecure versions of plug-ins, providing further protection for users. The plug-in security first appeared in Alpha 8 and is further improved in the Beta.
Firefox will now also work with Microsoft Windows Vista parental controls, so the browser will integrate with any system-wide policies a user may already have in place.
On the usability front, Beta 1 will enable users to resume a download after the browser is restarted. Developers have also improved tab functionality in this release with a new tab-scrolling feature and the ability to save tabs when closing the browser.
The Beta 1 release also marks the functional debut of a feature that was originally intended to be Firefox 2.x but didn't make it to the final release. Firefox 3 includes the Places bookmarking engine, which is a ground-up rewrite of Firefox's history and bookmarking tools.
A user can add bookmarks with one click and tag them using Places, which appeared in the Alpha 5 release in June. Both bookmarks and history are also searchable. A new feature called the Smart Places Folder helps users to further organize and control bookmarks by organizing bookmarks by visit frequency, as well as chronological order.
A key focus for Mozilla developers during the development of Firefox 3 has been to improve the speed of the browser. Mozilla claims that it has put the foundation in place for performance tuning, resulting in speed increases in the beta.
The release notes also claim that the beta plugs more than 300 individual memory leaks. There is a new tool built right into Firefox 3 that is expected to further reduce memory leakage, as well. Called the XPCOM (Cross Platform Component Object Model) cycle collector, the tool identifies objects that aren't being used and releases them from memory.
Mozilla developers have been at work on Firefox 3.0, code-named Gran Paradiso, since at least the release of Firefox 2.0 in October last year.
During that time, developers have cycled nine alpha milestones many of which introduced new functional items into Firefox 3 development tree. Alpha 2, which appeared in February, was the first to include the Cairo 2-D graphics library, which improves performance over Firefox 2.0's gfx graphics infrastructure.
In addition to Places, the Alpha 5 was the first to include the Breakpad crash-reporting system. Breakpad, formerly known as Airbag, is based on technology originally developed by Google.
The Alpha 6 release was particularly noteworthy as it integrated into Firefox 3 Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack protections. The XSS protection come by way of a specification that is intended to secure XML over HTTP requests (often referred to as XHR), which are often the culprit when it comes to XSS attacks.
The release of Firefox 3 Beta 1 is several months behind the original schedule, which at one point had the final version set for release this year. Firefox 3 is now expected to hit general availability in early 2008.