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New Firefox Versions In The Works

Firefox 3 has only been out the door for a couple of weeks, but Mozilla.org, which develops the browser, is already looking ahead to the next versions. I talked with Mozilla.org about what users can expect in future 'foxes, and when we can expect them. Bad news for you haters of the smart location bar: It's not going away, Mozilla is committed to it, although they're thinking of ways to modify it to make it more palatable.
Firefox 3 has only been out the door for a couple of weeks, but Mozilla.org, which develops the browser, is already looking ahead to the next versions. I talked with Mozilla.org about what users can expect in future 'foxes, and when we can expect them. Bad news for you haters of the smart location bar: It's not going away, Mozilla is committed to it, although they're thinking of ways to modify it to make it more palatable.We also discussed plans for upgrading the bookmarks management user interface in Firefox, reports from some users that Firefox 3 is still experiencing bloat as a result of memory usage problems, and problems with Firefox 3's security filters.

Firefox 3.1 is due in alpha in "a few months," Dotzler said, and the final version will be available around the New Year. Developers haven't yet set a timetable for Firefox 4, but they're starting to discuss features.

The top feature that Mozilla.org is looking at is the AwesomeBar. The AwesomeBar is a little personalized search engine that lives in the location bar of the browser -- the space at the top of most browsers where the URL of the current page is displayed, and where you can type in the URL for your next page you want to go to. In Firefox 3, when you start typing in the location bar, the software suggests a dropdown list of pages that match what you're typing. The list is extremely accurate, drawn from your history and bookmarks and calculated using the URL of the page, words in the title, in tags, and other page metadata.

For example, to find my Firefox 3 review, I simply type "Firefox" and "burns" into the AwesomeBar, and the review pops right up, first in Firefox 3's list of suggestions.

The AwesomeBar is controversial. I love it, but many people don't. Blogger Zac Garrett says it's "just plain annoying." A reader identifying himself as "user1001" said on our forums that he "hated that feature" and called it a "big mistake" that will drive Firefox users to Internet Explorer. Reader "Norm" says:


The awesome bar sucks. My biggest problem is that it displays what you have been browsing to anyone looking over your shoulder. Lets imagine you have have been visiting a jobs site. You boss walks up and asks you to pull up something. You create a new tab and start typing 'www'. You get that far and FF3 displays a huge banner with hotjobs or whatever. What a stupid idea. Its even stupider that you cannot revert to the FF2 behavior. The suggested fixes (oldbar addon and various tweaks) don't really restore FF2 functionality.

Despite the complaints, Mozilla.org has no plans to remove the AwesomeBar -- or even build in an easy-to-use way of disabling it, like a checkbox in the Preference pane, said Asa Dotzler, spokesmodel and storyteller (yes, that's his actual title) for Mozilla.org. Instead, users will adapt to the AwesomeBar, and Mozilla.org will adapt the AwesomeBar based on user feedback to make it easier to use, he said.

"I think with any innovative new feature, there's a period of time of adjustment and learning to adopt it," Dotzler said. "I remember when we implemented tab browsing, it wasn't three weeks until someone wrote an extension to strip it out. They couldn't understand why someone would do this rather than use application windows. Today it's a standard, and it took some time to get used to it." Tabbed browsing was pioneered by the Opera browser, but Firefox probably had more to do with driving it into the mainstream than Opera did.

For AwesomeBar haters: Garrett has instructions for disabling the AwesomeBar and making it work more like Firefox 2's location bar did. Or you can install the Old Location Bar Firefox extension, which restores the location bar to something like Firefox 2's bar; Dotzler, who recommended the extension, said it works better than oldbar, which we and other writers previously recommended.

As part of adapting to user preferences, Mozilla.org is making "small changes" to the AwesomeBar, Dotzler said. Developers are considering modifying the behavior so that, when you start typing, the first item that comes up in the dropdown list will complete against a page's URL only, while subsequent items match the current behavior of the AwesomeBar, checking against the URL, title, and other metadata of the bookmarks and history. Mozilla.org is also considering grouping suggestions of multiple pages on an individual site together, for easy navigation.

I don't like either of those two ideas myself. I think the AwesomeBar as is is close to perfect. The key to making effective use of it is to bring to bear the skills you've learned searching Google -- when you're trying to return to a page, throw words into the AwesomeBar from the title, URL, and other metadata, and Firefox 3 will most likely guess the page you're looking for.

And, in a simple change that should prove useful, the developers plan to allow the predictive suggestions to work even when changing a letter in the middle of a word in the location bar. Currently, the predictive analysis only works when you add additional letters to the end of a word, it breaks if you go back and change a letter in the middle.

Mozilla.org is betting that most of its users will either love the AwesomeBar immediately, or come around to that view after a while -- and after developers have a chance to adjust the behavior of the AwesomeBar. I think Mozilla.org is right. Ask me again in six months or a year, and we'll see.

Changes To The Library

Other changes that Mozilla.org is working on focus on the Library Window, where users manage their bookmarks and history.

The organization is working on making it easier for users to create smart folders, which are essentially saved searches. Right now, it's pretty simple to save simple searches of your bookmarks and history; just type in the search, click the "save" button, label the smart folder, and you're done. However, complex searches require programming skills. Mozilla.org wants to create graphical tools that allow everyone to create complex smart folders, Dotzler said. This may involve a form similar to Google Advanced Search.

Another option being developed is to sort bookmarks by "frecency." In an upcoming version of Firefox, users will be able to sort bookmarks and history so the pages they visit most frequently, and most recently, come to the top. Thats the way the AwesomeBar currently works.

Mozilla.org will add predictive typing to tagging, so Mozilla will suggest tags as you type. And developers will build tools to permit batch-tagging bookmarks in Firefox.

I asked Dotzler whether Mozilla.org plans to incorporate Prism into Firefox 3.1 or 4. Dotzler said Mozilla has always intended to make Prism part of Firefox eventually, but hasn't decided when to incorporate it into the mainstream browser.

Prism is experimental technology from Mozilla.org to create application-specific browser windows. For example, if you find yourself using Google Docs all day, you'd be able to customize a version of Firefox that goes only to that URL, with a custom icon, and which could be stored and launched just like a regular application. It would appear to the user to be just another desktop application, but the icon would actually run a Web application. Prism will work with any Web page, but it's specifically designed for Web applications such as Google Docs, Zoho, Gmail, and Google Reader.

I've tried Prism, and found it promising but not yet ready for prime time. It doesn't seem to support extensions, and links clicked in the Prism browser window -- for instance, in Friendfeed -- don't open properly in regular Firefox. Still, I'm a guy who lives all day in Gmail and Google Reader, so Prism sounds good to me.

Apple is reportedly making application-specific browser instances a feature of Safari 4.

Memory Problems

We talked a bit about Firefox 3's memory usage. Mozilla.org asserts that the memory-leak problems that plagued Firefox 2 are solved, but I've noticed if I leave Firefox 3 running overnight with many tabs open, I often come in in the morning to find it using 120+ MBytes of memory or more, and find it slow and unresponsive. "Norm," quoted above criticizing the AwesomeBar, says Firefox 3 is actually more of a memory hog than Firefox 2: "FF3 constantly consumes 20%-40% of the CPU when nothing is going on. FF2 displaying the exact same pages consumes 5%-15%."

Sougent Harrop listed problems he's having with Firefox 3 in a series of Twitter posts: "I'm seeing 95%+ CPU usage, this last time when I did an Image Save As, had to kill it in process explorer. Other times, it just happens even when I'm not even doing anything in FF, like when in [Second Life], though usually it's responsive then. Massive CPU usage, even if it might be an add-in, isn't something that should persist until the entire browser is closed." Harrop's posts are here: 1, 2, 3.

But Dotzler stands by Mozilla.org's claims that Firefox 3 is lean and mean. He said that Mozilla.org's own tests, and independent third-party measurements show that Firefox 3 uses less memory when viewing the same pages as Microsoft Internet Explorer, Safari, and Opera.

Why does Firefox use up so much resources so much of the time, then? He says it's the changing nature of the Web. "The Web isn't the same thing as it was five or ten years ago, it's not the same thing as it was two years ago," Dotzler said. Users routinely run the equivalent of Microsoft Outlook, Excel, AIM, cable television and Photoshop inside the browser, in the form of Web applications for e-mail, office suites, instant messaging, Internet video, and image editing apps. Those kinds of applications require computing resources whether you run them inside the browser or as standalone apps. The memory problems of Firefox 2 got people looking at the memory usage of their browsers, and now they're looking at the memory usage of Firefox 3 and thinking it's too high, when in fact it's just the amount of memory needed to do what needs doing.

"We should compare apples to apples, compare today's browsers running on today's Web, and in that test, for all the tests I've seen, Firefox is well ahead," Dotzler said.

Phishing And Malware Protection

Firefox 3 includes built-in phishing and malware protection. It's designed to throw up a warning page when you go to a known phishing site, or one that's going to try to download malware to your system. The system works by downloading a blacklist of known bad sites from StopBadware.org, an organization to fight spyware, phishing and other security threats on the Internet.

I've had inconsistent results attempting to test the malware and phishing filters in Firefox 3. Sometimes it seems to work very badly, other times quite well.

I run a very simple and unscientific test: I go into my spam folder, look for messages that are obviously phishing attempts, and click the links to see what happens. I check about a half-dozen links, hardly a statistical sample. I've run this test four times, and gotten different results.

The first time I ran the test was in December, when Firefox 3 went into beta, and I found that the filters failed to spot most phishing sites. I ran the same test last month, when reviewing the final version of Firefox, and found Firefox 3 once again failed to identify most phishing and malware sites.

At that point, I criticized the feature, arguing that the same people who most need the security filters -- people naive enough to click those e-mail links in the first place -- are most likely to be misled by the presence of a security warning that comes up only some of the time. For very naive user, an unreliable security warning is worse than no warning at all; it will lull them into a false sense of safety.

A funny thing happened when I ran the same test a week or so later, while preparing for our Firefox 3 security video. The phishing and malware filter had a 100% success rate, it caught every phishing attempt.

I was prepared to dismiss my first two tests as flukes, and declared Firefox 3's phishing warnings to be a success. At that point, I interviewed Dotzler, and he said that Mozilla.org's own tests on tens of thousands of phishing sites show a better than 90% success rate. He suggested that I may have run my test just after Firefox automatically updated its blacklist, and that I downloaded a flaky copy of the list. Firefox updates every 30 minutes online.

I figured that was it -- case closed -- my initial tests were faulty, Firefox's phishing filters were great, I'd write a follow-up article (which is what you're reading now), and move on.

Except another funny thing happened; I tested the phishing and malware filters again yesterday afternoon, and once again got lackluster results. I tested the filter against five obvious phishing messages in my spam folder, Firefox 3 failed to alert me to two phishing attempts and one attempt to download malware to my computer. It did, however, block two phishing tests.

So at this point I'm scratching my head about whether Firefox 3's phishing and malware filters are effective or not. Have any of you run comprehensive tests? What have you found?

I've been focusing on a lot of negative in the last half of this blog post, and some in my earlier review, too, but I should be clear that I'm actually quite happy with Firefox 3. It's fast, and the AwesomeBar, new bookmarks system, and ability to zoom whole Web pages make it much easier to use than any other browser I've tried. (Usual disclaimer applies here: The choice of Web browser is a personal one, and if you're happier with another browser, that doesn't make you wrong.) Other users agree -- following Firefox 3's release date last month, Firefox browser market share surged more than half a percentage point, to 19%.

Have you been using Firefox 3? Are you happy with it? What are your likes and dislikes? Let us know.

Editor's Choice
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing