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Firefox 4 Arrives Next Week

"The thing that we've got that nobody else has is we answer to nobody but you," says Mozilla's director of Firefox.

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Mozilla's Firefox 4, the latest iteration of the second most popular Web browser in the world, will be officially released on March 22, 2011. Presently, the release candidate is available.

It's been a long time coming. The first Firefox 4 beta was released July 6, 2010. At the time, Mozilla was aiming to deliver a release candidate in the fall of 2010.

Launching several months late isn't ideal but Google's release practices have made Firefox's tardiness look worse. Google launched Chrome 5 on May 21, 2010. On March 8, 2011, Google released Chrome 10. Is Firefox now five generations behind Chrome? Hardly. The four major Web browsers -- Chrome 10, Firefox 4, Internet Explorer 9, and Safari 5 -- are more comparable and competitive than ever before.

But Google's relentless development cycle and inflationary numbering scheme suggest otherwise, which is why Mozilla hopes to ship Firefox 5, 6 and 7 this year too.

Version numbers don't really reveal as much as user numbers. And there Firefox is still ahead of Chrome. Johnathan Nightingale, director of Firefox development, says Firefox has more than 400 million users worldwide and a 30% global market share.

NetApplications, an Internet metrics company, suggest that figure is closer to 22% and flat, if not falling.

The most significant number Nightingale cites is six: "Firefox 4 is fast," he said. "It's blazing fast. Six times faster than any Firefox we've done before."

Other browser makers make similar claims too, though some of those claims are more actively disputed than others, like Microsoft's assertions about hardware acceleration.

Nightingale argues that Microsoft is leaving most of its users behind by offering Internet Explorer 9 only for its most recent versions of Windows. "Microsoft has decided to focus their efforts on Direct2D, which is Vista and 7," he said. "And so they just don't accelerate on XP. That's really surprising to use because when we look at metrics, we see 40% to 50% of the Web still on XP. So we can't leave them out in the cold. It's harder, because it means you've got to build your hardware acceleration twice, once using the older set of APIs and once using the newer set. But we want everybody to have a first-class experience."

And Firefox 4 is that. It features a significantly improved user interface, with tabs now on top of the URL bar, which Mozilla insists on calling the "Awesome Bar." Navigation has been improved with the addition of features like Switch to Tab, which helps locate open tabs when entering information in the URL bar. And Web apps can now be turned into an App Tab for more immediate access.

The Panorama tab manager simplifies browse organization and customization. And similarly, the new Add-ons Manager improves the process of discovering and installing browser add-ons. Perhaps best of all, add-ons can now be activated without restarting the browser.

"Customizability has always been one of Firefox's central values," said Nightingale."We build the best browser we can for our users, but we understand they're going to have different needs."

Among various security and privacy features, Firefox 4 implements a Do Not Track flag, which indicates the user's desire not to be tracked for the purpose of behavioral advertising. Whether advertisers will respect this flag remains to be seen, but it looks like they may be forced to: Microsoft is also backing Do Not Track, and some elected officials are pushing to make compliance mandatory.

Firefox 4 also recognizes a variety of cutting edge HTML5 elements, like WebGL. It adds support for HD and WebM video and the Mozilla Audio API. And it offers hardware acceleration on the Mac and Windows.

With differentiation between the browsers diminishing, Mozilla has begun shifting its attention to adjacent aspects of the Web ecosystem: synchronization, app stores, and privacy, for example. In a sense Firefox has won, though that doesn't mean it's the dominant browser. Winning isn't actually Mozilla's goal.

"When we started, it was all Internet Explorer," said Nightingale. "Getting into that space at all was the first impossible challenge, especially for a non-profit. I mean who would choose Microsoft as their competition? Fast forward to today, there's a rich spectrum of browsers and several of them are decent. That's great. We're not aiming for 100% of the market. What we want is a healthy Web and having 30% market share means we're a pretty strong voice for moving the Web where we need to. But what we like at least as much is seeing other browsers pick up ideas from us and picking up ideas from them."

"The thing that we've got that nobody else has is we answer to nobody but you," said Nightingale. "We're not beholden to an ad network to make money. We're not trying to tie in with other products. We're not trying to create a vertical silo of controlled experience from top to bottom. Our only job is to make a browser that serves users."

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