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Mozilla delays Firefox 3.1 again, slates another beta

Beta 4 adds six weeks to schedule, pushes delivery to Q2

February 26, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Mozilla Corp. yesterday announced it will add another beta to the Firefox 3.1 development schedule, a move that will push the browser's ship date to the second quarter or later.

"We're going to wrap up Beta 3 in the next week regardless of 'upvar' status," said Mike Shaver, Mozilla's vice president of engineering, referring to a particularly troublesome bug in Firefox 3.1's new JavaScript engine that has held up releasing that preview.

"A fourth beta will follow approximately six weeks after, as a vehicle for more testing of [the] TraceMonkey [JavaScript engine], video, Places and other eagerly awaited improvements, as well as feedback from Beta 3," Shaver said in a message on a company forum.

The decision was not unexpected. Last weekend, Shaver said that bugs in TraceMonkey had slowed the development pace, which in turn had kicked the browser's release into next quarter. He also said that developers were considering a fourth beta.

Shaver's decision to push out Beta 3, come hell or high water, followed comments by a few Mozilla developers who wondered whether it's smart to hold up Firefox for TraceMonkey fixes. One company programmer speculated that minus the new JavaScript engine, Mozilla could have wrapped up Firefox 3.1 by this point. "Without TraceMonkey, we probably could have shipped 3.1 final by now, or, if not now, within the next month," said Firefox developer David Baron last week.

Another executive said that Mozilla might take advantage of the fourth beta to add some more features. "[But] we are going to be extremely conservative here," said Firefox director Mike Beltzner, who also spelled out the criteria that new features must meet in order to be accepted. Those ranged from the obvious -- they must be complete, for one -- to the subjective. "We need to understand the benefit of taking the change," Beltzner said, "and why it's needed for 3.1 instead of later."

Although Mozilla originally conceived Firefox 3.1 as a "fast-track" upgrade slated to launch in late 2008, the new browser's progress has been much slower than planned. In fact, Mozilla has reworked Firefox 3.1's schedule several times. Last November, for example, it slipped a third beta into the timetable, in part to fix more bugs, but also to give features such as TraceMonkey, additional testing time.

Mozilla has not published a revised release schedule for Firefox 3.1 -- Beltzner said he's working on one -- but the addition of Beta 4 will clearly push the release into next quarter. Until now, Mozilla had regularly cited the first quarter of 2009 as the delivery date.

The delay prompted one developer to suggest that Mozilla rename Firefox 3.1. "Given all the efforts that went into Firefox 3.1 and given its prolonged schedule and expanded scope, I was wondering whether it might make more sense to name it Firefox 3.5 just as Firefox 1.1 was renamed Firefox 1.5?" asked Simon Paquet, who works on localizing Thunderbird, Mozilla Messaging Inc.'s e-mail client. "That way we would more clearly communicate to users that this isn't just a minor update but a major step forward."

Shaver said Paquet was not the first to make the suggestion, but said that any talk of renaming the browser should wait until after Firefox 3.1 Beta 3 was released.

Mozilla faces increased pressure from rival browser makers, which have recently made moves of their own. Microsoft Corp., which may wrap up Internet Explorer 8 as early as next month, released the new browser's release candidate in late January. Just two days ago, Apple Inc. launched a public beta of Safari 4, which is nearly 40% faster than the newest Firefox 3.1 build in rendering JavaScript, according to benchmark tests Computerworld has run.

Shaver, however, has rejected the idea of a race. "This is much more about having the product done right than getting it out fast," he said in an interview last Saturday.

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