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Mozilla Lays Out Firefox 4 Roadmap

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What do Web users want from their browser? That’s the question the Mozilla will try to answer with the next generation of its open source Web browser, Firefox 4.

With Firefox 4, Mozilla plans on including its new Jetpack add-on technology as well as integrating data synchronization with Mozilla Weave while boosting performance and improving personalization and customization. The browser’s first public beta is currently targeted for June with a final release by the end of the 2010.

With that release, Mozilla is aiming to continue to accelerate the Web browser market space as it faces off against rivals including Google’s Chrome and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers.

“We built the Web ecosystem into the space that we wanted it to be. Think back to how things were five or six years ago with one player, no competition and nobody pushing each other forward,” Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox at Mozilla, said during a conference call discussing Firefox 4. “We’re now in a space that is intensely competitive and all about pushing each other forward. We watch our competitors and our competitors watch us. We are in it to win it.”

For Mozilla, the key to browser success relies on understanding how the browser is used by different groups of users for their own, unique purposes.

“I would argue that what users are looking to do is interact with friends, family, random people on the Web, and they’re looking to create content,” Beltzner said. “Developers want to build something: They want to create something and they also want to find really expressive ways of building their applications for users — they want to impress their users.”

While end-users and developers use Firefox in different ways, both groups are looking for speed and performance, which is a key goal for Firefox 4.

Beltzner noted that there are a number of different ways that browser performance can be improved. Mozilla developers have focused in the past on JavaScript speed improvements, with the faster Tracemonkey engine making its debut in the Firefox 3.5 release. For Firefox 4, JavaScript performance will be improved further with the new JaegerMonkey engine.

“The idea of JaegerMonkey is that we’ve done a lot of great work on tracing, which is a great way of making most apps that are repetitive run very fast,” Beltzner said. “There are a bunch of optimizations that we can now do on the baseline performance of our JavaScript interpreter. JaegerMonkey aims to improve baseline performance and then adds tracing as a bonus.”

Beltzner added that Mozilla developers are also involved in what he described as “pathological performance investigations” as well, aimed at identifying issues that cause Firefox to be slower than it should be — and then fixing those issues.

A key part of the Firefox 4 experience will also deal with user perceptions about speed. For one thing, Beltzner noted that the order in which pixels appear on a screen makes a difference.

“The simpler an interface looks, the faster it seems and the less the user has to take in with their eyes, the quicker the entire application seems,” Beltzner said. “So we’re looking at making the interface faster by changing the way it works.”

As a result, Firefox 4 will have a new default user interface, with the goal of placing fewer pixels between users and their Web content.

Firefox synchronization and add-on enhancements

Firefox 4 is also receiving a number of new features. For instance, the browser will enable users to backup and synchronize their browsing data, thanks to the integration of the Mozilla Weave add-on.

Add-ons in general will get a boost with Mozilla’s Jetpack technology, which will enable add-ons to be installed and loaded without a browser restart. Jetpack also aims to offer the advantage of multi-browser version compatibility, so that add-on developers won’t have to update their add-ons for each new Firefox release.

Developers will also benefit directly from Firefox 4 with the inclusion of new developers tools. A new Web inspector tool console will likely debut with Firefox 4, providing a new view for developers into how their code works with the browser.

“We’re looking at pulling back the covers and being able to poke into the internals of your applications, find out what’s in an object and see a log of network requests,” Beltzner said. “It’s really like an advanced view source sort of view.”

Road to Firefox 4

The current plan for Firefox 4 is to have the first beta available by the end of June. Beltzner noted that having a multi-month beta phase with frequent updates is a process that has worked well for Mozilla in the past. The current target is for a final Firefox 4 release in the October/November timeframe.

“This is an aggressive schedule, but I think what it means is we need to focus the effort on all those projects that we already know are underway and that can come together to make a really great Firefox 4,” Beltzner said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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