The open-source Mozilla Foundation released the latest iteration of its Firefox Web browsing software on Friday, promising faster navigation, increased customization and improved security in the third beta version of its upcoming application.
Labelled Firefox 1.5 Release Candidate 3, the new installment of the Web browsing software claims many of the same types of improvements as the last several test versions of the application.
Those additions include faster navigation, with upgrades to back and forward button performance, as well as drag-and-drop reordering for browser tabs, and improvements in general usability, such as more descriptive error pages, a further redesigned options menu, RSS feed discovery capabilities and a "safe mode" for enhanced protection against potential threats.
In addition to launching the new beta, Mozilla representatives confirmed that the group hopes to introduce the final version of Firefox 1.5 sometime during the last week of November, or within the first several days of December.
The second beta version of the browser was released during the first week of October. Mozilla said previously that it plans to adopt a more aggressive product introduction cycle in 2006, with Firefox 2 launching by mid-year, and Firefox 3 expected out some time during the first quarter of 2007.
As part of the Release Candidate 3 introduction, Mozilla also added new automated updating features for the software in an effort to streamline transitions to future editions of the browser.
Mozilla said that update notifications have also been made more prominent in the software, including the addition of pop-ups that inform users of new features.
Mozilla has said that it plans to begin releasing regularly scheduled security and stability updates for Firefox 1.5 every six to eight weeks after the final version of the application is introduced.
Other improvements promised in Release Candidate 3 include improved pop-up ad blocking tools, the addition of the Answers.com site to the browser's search engine listings, extended capabilities for reporting Web sites that do not work with the software and new support for Apple Inc.'s Mac OS X operating system, including profile migration from the Safari and Mac Internet Explorer browsers.
Since launching just over one year ago, Firefox has garnered significant attention for attracting over 100 million downloads and siphoning market share away from Microsoft Corp.'s dominant Explorer browser.
According to Onestat.com, which analyzes Internet traffic, Firefox's slice of the worldwide browser market is currently holding at 11 percent, compared to Internet Explorer's 85 percent market share.
Once a hotly contended market with well-known players such as Netscape and America Online Inc. challenging Microsoft for dominance, competition for Explorer had tailed off noticeably over the last five years before the introduction of Firefox in 2004.
Mozilla representatives said that customers are responding to the notion of again having a choice in which browsers they may use to go online.
"We've had a year to collect feedback from our users, and we've seen that people are really responding to having a choice again," said Paul Kim, director of product marketing for Mozilla.
"We're really focusing on improving the overall user experience; you won't see a lot of changes in the user interface as we don't want to add features just for the sake of doing so, but we want to make sure that we integrate the best of the user feedback we receive, and refine other areas of the product."
Despite the browser's success, at least one expert said that adoption of Firefox may actually be slowing down based on the recent rash of security vulnerabilities discovered in the product.
A majority of consumers also appear indifferent regarding which specific applications they use to view Web sites, said Nate Root, analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research.
Root said that businesses in particular have become increasingly disinterested in Firefox, as the browser has been proven to have many of the same types of security issues as Explorer.
While the open-source community has long argued that applications produced by its developers are safer than proprietary programs such as Explorer—based on their readily available source code and the legions of programmers willing to lend a hand to fix problems—several serious vulnerabilities have been identified in Firefox over the past few months.
It's worth noting that the security issues attached to Firefox have been related to holes found in the software, and not to actual attacks crafted to take advantage of those weaknesses.
"Firefox had a great opportunity upfront to go after the corporate crowd and people made a lot of noise about it having better security than Explorer and faster deployment speeds," said Root.
"But it's since been proven to have many of the same holes as IE, and some of the adaptations of the browser created by the developer community may have actually made it seem less appealing; so some of that credibility has been lost."
Root said that "cutting-edge Linux heads" would likely be interested with the new beta version, in a nod toward users of the open source operating system, but the analyst believes that most consumers remain fairly apathetic about just which browsers they use to surf the Internet.
With Windows' placement of Explorer as the default Web browser on most new computers, and with IE holding a tight grip on the business market, he said the chances for Firefox to steal more market share from Explorer may be slim.
In addition to consumer indifference, Root said that Microsoft is also working hard to reinvigorate its own browser efforts and defend against the threat of losing users to Firefox.
"Firefox 1.5 should be a great product, but Microsoft isn't resting on its laurels anymore. They're trying to deliver on many of the same benefits of Firefox in the upcoming Vista version of Explorer, so that will make it even harder to convince people to switch," said Root.
"Firefox is likely to remain something most of interest to the open source or extremely tech-savvy users out there. Most consumers don't really see big reason to change."
Mozilla's Kim said that the group understands the shortcomings of Firefox and that it is working to make the browser more appealing to business users and other consumers. To raise the software's profile publicly, Mozilla is planning to launch an advertising campaign over the coming months.
"We recognize that a lot of Firefox's success has been with power users, or gained via word-of-mouth marketing from those people, but we're looking at a lot of ways to identify new distribution channels," said Kim.
"There's still a certain class of users out there who are not comfortable with downloading applications from the Web, so, we're looking at ways to put it on more desktops."
In regards to security, the executive said that Firefox will get safer over time as the application matures and even larger numbers of open-source developers volunteer to lend a hand in scouring the software for potential issues.
"We don't believe that it's possible to make any browser 100 percent secure, there's a lot of motivation for people to launch attacks, and we have to be more responsive to handling security issues," said Kim.
"But we think that better security is still a differentiator for us, and that we can indeed respond faster today than in the past."
In other Firefox-related matters, on Wednesday, Microsoft made available for download a plug-in that will allow Firefox and other Mozilla-based browser users to validate their Microsoft software via the Windows Genuine process.
WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage) is a Microsoft anti-piracy program that requires Windows users to validate the authenticity of their Windows operating system before being able to download key technologies from the company's various download sites.
The program became mandatory in July 2005 after a voluntary pilot test.
Microsoft made public its rationale for providing the Firefox plug-in on the IE (Internet Explorer) blog.
"Basically, customers said 'We want to make sure our PCs are running genuine Windows and have access to all the content on the Microsoft Download Center; the experience when we're running a Mozilla browser is not great. Do something about it," blogged Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's general manager of Vista browsing and RSS technologies.
"I think that's a good thing for customers. Microsoft wants to provide a good user experience to all Windows customers who are validating their systems."
David Lazar, director of Genuine Windows, cautioned against reading too much into Microsoft's decision to provide the Firefox plug-in. He said that Microsoft was not acknowledging that Firefox was gaining on Internet Explorer, in terms of market share.
"Don't look at this as a long term strategic shift or a commitment to another technology. We simply wanted to respond to customer requirements," said Lazar.
"We wanted to make the Firefox path (for Windows Genuine validation) to be as good as the IE path. We wanted to remove the barriers for users."
Microsoft officials declined to comment on whether the company was considering developing similar Firefox plug-ins for the company's Windows Update and Office Update services.
A number of Firefox users have expressed interest in the availability of such plug-ins via postings on Web sites such as Slashdot.org and Neowin.Net.