Mozilla delivers latest Firefox 4 beta

Execs want release candidate in 'in weeks, not months' as push toward Feb. final accelerates

Mozilla today shipped Firefox 4 Beta 9, perhaps the last it will release before it pushes toward a final version now planned to ship by the end of February.

The newest beta includes fewer major changes than its Dec. 22 predecessor, with just a pair of performance improvements -- one to the code that handles the browser's bookmarks and history list -- called out by Mozilla.

According to Mozilla, Beta 9 sports 662 bug fixes or changes, less than half of the 1,400 it made in Beta 8, which launched a little over three weeks ago.

Although Mozilla picked up the pace between Beta 8 and 9 -- the interval between Beta 7 and 8 was six weeks -- the company is pushing developers to get the code in shape for a "release candidate," the last major milestone before the browser is deemed good enough to officially ship.

Earlier this week, Mozilla's head of platform engineering said there were still too many "hard blocker" bugs -- flaws that would prevent Firefox 4 from final release -- and urged developers to "press hard" toward a February finish line.

In a follow-up blog post Thursday, Johnathan Nightingale, the director of Firefox development, called on all programmers to reevaluate their blocking bugs.

Saying that developers must take a "hard look at our blocker list," Nightingale added that, "at this point, very few bugs are worth holding back that much awesome."

Nightingale said that as of Thursday, 143 hard blocker bugs remained, and detailed which flaws fit into the category. "A hard blocker is a failure of a core part of our release criteria, e.g. a crash, a memory leak, a performance hit, a security issue, a [user interface] breakage that can't be recovered from, an incompatibility we can't stomach," he said.

It's unclear if Mozilla will do a 10th beta.

Although Firefox Beta 10 remains on a still-current schedule that shows on Mozilla's Web site, on Monday Damon Sicore, who leads the company's engineering group, hinted that Beta 9 might be the last.

"If we can't get [bugs] to zero in reasonable time, we'll repeat [a tenth beta]," he said on a Firefox developers mailing list.

By Mozilla's schedule, Beta 9 was nearly a month late.

After Firefox wraps up its beta cycle, Mozilla will issue at least one release candidate to shake out any final bugs. The schedule does not show a target ship date for the release candidate.

Nightingale said that he wanted to see a release candidate soon.

"Firefox 4 is good for the Web, good for our users, and puts the heat on other vendors to up their own game," he said in his blog post yesterday. "We need to ship it ASAP -- - we want release candidates in weeks, not months."

Mozilla's biggest rival is also nearing release candidate on its next browser. According to several online sources, Microsoft will deliver the release candidate of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) later this month, perhaps on Jan. 28.

Microsoft has said it will ship the final edition of IE9 before the end of March.

Firefox currently accounts for 22.8% of all browsers used worldwide, a drop of two percentage points since its peak in November 2009. Internet Explorer's 57.1% share during December 2010 was 5.6 percentage points lower than the same time the year before.

Firefor 4 Beta 9 can be downloaded for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux from Mozilla's site.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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