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Quick Take: Mozilla Firefox 3.6

It's hard to overstate the effect Mozilla's Firefox browser has had on the tech industry. It spurred Microsoft to reinvigorate its once-moribund Internet Explorer (IE), resulting in two of the strongest releases of that product. It inspired Google to create its own web browser, Chrome, and then of course guided the adoption of key Chrome features like extensions. To the wider world, of course, Firefox is the other browser, and while the web browsing market still revolves mostly around IE, the influence of Microsoft's browser is ebbing. And its Firefox that is taking up most of the slack.

\\[ Read my overview of Google Chrome 4. \\]

There's good reason for this. Firefox is fast, stable, and feature-packed. Until very recently, it was my browser of choice--recent experimentation with Chrome has turned into out-and-out fandom--but I still recommend Firefox to mainstream PC users as the best of the lot, a browser that is readily compatible with the sites that people really visit while providing an extensible UI that lets the browser be whatever it is you want it to be.

Soon, Mozilla will ship the next update to Firefox, and while the 3.6 version number may not seem like a big deal, there are some interesting changes afoot, both for this version of the browser and for subsequent releases that will come throughout 2010. It seems that Mozilla has found a new release cadence with Firefox 3.6, and will now deliver a number of similar updates between now and the eventual 4.0 release. We'll examine those as they come. For now, we've got the best release yet of what is arguably the best browser on the market. And if you're already using Firefox, you're going to want to upgrade. Here's why.

What's new in Firefox 3.6

If you're familiar with Firefox 3.5 (see my write-up), version 3.6 won't immediately raise any eyebrows. The basic interface is largely unchanged, with that God-awful (in Windows Vista and 7, anyway) new toolbar and an old-school menu, both of which are heading to retirement by 2011. But look a bit deeper, and you'll see a few changes.

Mozilla Firefox 3.6
By default, Firefox 3.6 looks a lot like its predecessor.

Primary among these is the integration of Personas, a UI feature that debuted as a separate add-on to Firefox 3.5 last year. Somewhat confusing because it is separate but complimentary to the separate themes feature, Personas provides a way to skin the browser "chrome" in ways that can be colorful, bland, or whatever your heart desires. Themes, meanwhile, continue along in a separate trajectory, providing a way to change the look and feel of the browsers toolbar buttons and other buttons. (Mozilla also provides a half-hearted way to combine Personas, Themes, and other add-ons together into entities called Collections. I suspect this will be formalized and improved in subsequent releases.

Mozilla Firefox 3.6
But you can spice things up with Personas.

In any event, Personas is a great idea, even in its current disjointed form, because it lets users more fully transform Firefox into something personalized. It lets you turn the bland default UI into something more attractive.

Firefox 3.6 offers an automatic update check for any installed add-ons, which is obviously convenient, but also provides users with a way to avoid any potential security snafus. (I'm looking at you, Adobe Flash.) It's as brilliant as it is obvious, and an excellent addition to the browser.

Performance is improved again in this release, with Mozilla falling neatly into the JavaScript performance wars. Version 3.6 apparently offers huge JavaScript performance gains, which make a big difference for cloud computing services and the like. My take on this is that all the major browsers already offer excellent performance across the board, and while Firefox doesn't offer any of the startup pop of Chrome, it's certainly head and shoulders above market leader IE

Mozilla also continues its ongoing efforts to minimize memory usage, and while it's still somewhat of a hog, I think it's time to accept the fact that running multiple browsers and windows is going to eat up available memory. (And as a Chrome user, who am I to complain? Google's browser is even worse in this regard.)

Firefox support for HTML 5 features continues in this release, with version 3.6 picking up full screen video playback support without the need for a separate add-on. That said, not many sites are using HTML 5 just yet, but that's going to change, and the days of dealing with separate video playback add-ons may soon come to a close (for WebKit and Firefox users, anyway). There's also support for more CSS and HTML 5 technologies, including web fonts, which is of course an ongoing effort.

Schedule and expectations

As successful as Firefox has been, one thing Mozilla has never gotten a handle on is the development schedule. I believe that every single version of this browser has been delayed one or more times during development, and that's absolutely been the case with Firefox 3.6, which was originally due by the end of 2009. As I write this, the browser is currently at the release candidate milestone, and if past releases are any guide, there could likely be at least one more RC release before its finalized. In any event, Mozilla says that it is now on track to ship the final version of Firefox 3.6 sometime in the first quarter. That gives it plenty of wiggle room.

Subsequent releases are a bit murkier. Mozilla originally intended to follow up Firefox 3.6 with a 3.7 release sometime in 2010 followed by a big 4.0 delivery in early 2011. That is no longer in the plan, however. This week, Mozilla announced plans to speed up delivery of Firefox updates by providing a series of minor revisions throughout 2010. The first, apparently, will allow the browser to run add-ons in a separate memory process from the main browser, providing for no-reboot add-on updates and better security.

Whatever happens in the future, one thing is clear: Mozilla Firefox is an excellent browser, and this tradition will continue with version 3.6. I'm using the release candidate now, and if you've been following the progress of the 3.6 betas, you should upgrade. Mainstream Firefox customers should simply wait for the final 3.6 release.

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