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Mozilla reacts to rivals with plans to beef up Firefox 3.1

It's squeezing in another month's work on JavaScript, privacy mode

September 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Mozilla Corp. will try to squeeze more into Firefox 3.1, in part as a reaction to rival browsers from Microsoft and Google, the company's chief engineer said today.

"Looking at where we are and the competitive browser landscape, we felt we would be doing a better job if we had another four to five weeks," said Mike Shaver, Mozilla's interim vice president of engineering.

Shaver wasn't sure what impact, if any, the additional work would have on Firefox 3.1's final release date, which Mozilla had targeted as late 2008 or early 2009. "It's too early to know what affect it will have," he said. "But that [late 2008/early 2009 time frame] is still what we're looking at."

In a lengthy post to the Mozilla.dev.planning message forum last week, Shaver spelled out what Mozilla hopes to do. There, he listed several features that would benefit from "one more 'feature cycle' " of development, including TraceMonkey, the browser's revamped JavaScript engine, and a privacy mode that was only recently slated for Firefox 3.1.

In an interview today, Shaver said the move was in part due to faster-than-expected progress on some features, such as extending TraceMonkey's capabilities into other areas of the Firefox code. "We saw we could apply those [TraceMonkey] techniques to performance in other areas, like [Document Object Model]. We think if we could bang on this a little longer, we would get more out of this," he said.

The desire to push TraceMonkey development wasn't a reaction to Chrome, the beta browser Google Inc. released two weeks ago. "That's not a reactive thing, it's just the next logical step," Shaver said, noting that Mozilla started work on TraceMonkey more than two months before Google announced Chrome.

But Shaver acknowledged that some of the extra work Mozilla would like to put into Firefox 3.1 is being prompted by competitive pressure. "We're not blind to the competitive landscape," he said. "We're watching other browsers as much as they're watching us."

He cited Mozilla's plans for a Firefox privacy mode as an example. Both Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer 8, currently in beta, and Google's Chrome have tools that limit or eliminate what those browsers record during their travels.

"There's a difference between when just one browser has a feature and when it's in several," said Shaver. "There are user expectations."

Among the features of a Firefox privacy mode that Shaver would like to squeeze into 3.1 is one that would let users wipe surfing traces retroactively. "It would be nice if you could pretend these last two hours didn't happen," he said.

Other changes that may land in Firefox 3.1 between its first and second betas, said Shaver, include improvements to the location bar -- which Mozilla dubs the "Awesome Bar" -- and detachable tabs, a feature Chrome also sports that lets users drag tabs from a browser to the desktop to open a new window.

"In some ways, we get a free move" with the opportunity to look at rivals like IE8 and Chrome, study how they implement a feature and watch the reactions from users, said Shaver.

Currently in Alpha 2, Firefox 3.1 is scheduled to go "code freeze" at the end of this month, with a tentative ship in four weeks or so, said Shaver. "We're in good shape for mid-October to the third week," he said today.

Firefox 3.1 can be downloaded in its present form from Mozilla's site in versions for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.

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