Mozilla have released the latest Beta of their Firefox 4 browser for Windows. Beta 7 is being billed as pretty much what will be released as version 4 in the first part of 2011, although it does seem that they are planning a beta 8 and 9 in the next few months. However, word out of Mozilla is that nothing fundamentally new will be added to the release version, and nothing present in this Beta will be removed.
Running a Beta is always a little risky, of course, but I've never had any serious problems running Firefox Betas in the past. The worst that can happen is that some of your addons stop working, but to address this you can now install the Addon Compatibility Reporter addon, which allows you to not only run addons built for previous versions, but report to the developer and community whether it works or not under the version you are running. Along with this, the version 4 Betas have shipped with a Feedback button, which allows you to send compliments and complaints to the Firefox team and a public bulletin board. Finally, they have also included user studies, which track your usage and anonymously report back various statistics, such as how many tabs you had open over a week, the memory footprint of the browser and the like. Some require the user to input information, others are autonomous, and all can be switched on and off easily if you have privacy concerns. I believe that incorporating these into the Betas (user studies and the feedback button will be removed from the final release) is a fantastic idea, and can only help to improve the application as it approaches release.
Version 4 brings a few changes to the browser, but to the average user the the most noticeable features will be:
- Tabs are now on top of the address bar (which Firefox calls the Awesome Bar) by default.
- A previously experimental feature called Tab Candy has now been fully incorporated as Panorama, allowing you to group tabs using a drag-and-drop interface (more on this later).
- Tabs can be designated as App Tabs, which means that they are smaller than ordinary tabs, and are also available no matter which tab group you are currently using.
- Multiline text boxes can now be dragged larger and smaller, much the same as Chrome introduced a while back. There were addons that allowed this in Firefox in the past, but it is now natively part of the browser.
- The addons interface has received a complete overhaul, allowing you to search for and install addons without having to browse to the addons site yourself.
- Syncing between computers and mobiles no longer requires an addon, it can be handled entirely by Firefox itself.
- HTML5 is being incorporated for faster video rendering, as well as various other effects and functionality that HTML4 does not support.
- In Windows 7 and Vista there is a Firefox Button to access the controls in the hidden menu bar (not shown in my XP screenshots)
There are other changes from the previous Betas, some of which were a little surprising. When the full version is released the Firefox team will need to ensure that they explain these particular changes to users to avoid confusing less technical users. I don't think any are wrong, or even bad, but they are different enough to require some explanation at upgrade time. Other changes are more (or less?) obvious.
The addons interface has received another overhaul, making it even more user friendly. An associated improvement is that Firefox now supports restartless addons - that's right, like Chrome you can now install an addon and start using it immediately, without having to restart the browser. This has been one of the biggest wish-list items for Firefox for a while now. A caveat is that addons must be specifically written to take advantage of this feature, and I understand that for technical reasons not all addons will be able to make use of it.
The informational bar at the bottom of the browser, where the progress bar, addon icons and other information were displayed is now hidden by default, presumably to release more screen space to the pages being viewed. The confusing thing is that this is also where Firefox would display the address of links as the mouse hovered over them, and at first this completely confused me. However, I quickly found that it now displays the URL in the Awesome Bar, next to the site address. I actually think this is a really neat change - this is the correct place for the address to display. Reading some other user comments around the web it seems that this is particularly confusing, and they will have to manage it properly. The bottom bar has been rebranded the Add-on Bar, and it can be turned back on via the Toolbar menu, although link addresses will continue to display in the Awesome Bar. The progress bar has also been removed and replaced with a swirling image on each tab.
The stop and reload buttons have now been merged into one button at the end of the Awesome Bar. This makes sense from a space point of view, although I keep moving the mouse to the wrong end of the browser to try to stop pages loading when they're taking too long. I'll get used to it.
Earlier in this post I alluded to "more about Panorama later". I've left this until last because it has introduced a strangeness that somewhat disappoints me, and reading through various discussion forums it is clear that there is no real consensus on precisely how this feature should work. For now though, tt seems that the Beta 7 behaviour is the final word for the release version.
The idea with Panorama (previously Tab Candy) is to try to address the modern phenomenon of users having multiple tabs open. In the past, when the internet was young, people would typically surf one or two sites at a time, with each site requiring it's own browser window. As internet speeds improved, rich content (like video) became more commonplace, and people starting doing more and more online, the multiple-window model no longer worked and browsers started to incorporate tabs. Of course, rather than arresting the trend of having multiple sites open at a time this served to increase the problem. Users were having to scroll back and forth across a long line of tabs, and in some browser setups these tabs shrink to try to fit more in, decreasing their identification. Some users worked around the issue by having a number of browser windows open, each containing a set of related tabs. For instance, they might have a communications window with GMail, Google Reader, Facebook and Hotmail, another window containing a few Newsvine articles on different tabs, and yet another one with the work intranet and browser-based applications. I, like many others, don't like having multiple windows open at the same time and used the Tree Style Tab addon to group tabs down the left of the screen. There are other solutions to the problem, this is just one that worked well for me.
Panorama builds on some other addons' ideas to give you a canvas on which to view thumbnails of all your tabs, and drag them into functional groups. So now you can have a Communications group, a Newsvine group and a Work group. A keyboard shortcut and a toolbar button take you to the Panorama canvas where you can easily create new groups, adjust their size, and drag tabs between groups (or leave some or all of them groupless if you prefer).
Ok, so why am I belabouring the point? In the previous Beta there was a bug in the way Panorama behaved with App Tabs. Let's say that you had a GMail tab open in the Communications group, and you turned this into an App Tab, and did the same for the Newsvine front page in the Newsvine group. No matter which group you are using at the time (Communications, Newsvine or Work) these two tabs would be visible. However, if you were viewing a tab in the Newsvine group and clicked the GMail App tab, not only would you be taken to your GMail, but it would change the focussed group to the Communications group. At first I found this confusing, but quickly realised that it was a powerful way to switch between groups without having to enter the Panorama canvas each time. As I said above this was a bug, and they have now fixed it so that clicking on an App Tab no longer changes groups, because App Tabs no longer belong to any group. However, as far as I am concerned this "fix" has rendered the groups less usable.
Let's say I am viewing the Newsvine group, then click on the GMail App Tab to see if I have any new mail. I have an invitation to a party, so I open the Google calendar from the GMail interface to see if I am free. In Beta 6 I would already have switched to the Communications group by clicking on GMail, but in Beta 7 my calendar has now opened in the Newsvine group. To get it into the Communications group I either have to right-click the tab and move it to the group I want, or enter Panorama and drag it there. I understand Mozilla's thinking on this - App Tabs are not group controllers, they are tabs of a special type, but with the bug in the previous Betas I found their ability to control groups very powerful indeed. From now on, to change groups I have to either hit the keyboard shortcut for Panorama, or click the icon in the tab bar, and then choose the group. And just to confuse things further, the keyboard shortcut for Panorama has changed from CTRL-Space to CTRL-E. This was done because CTRL-Space is used by some websites - notably YouTube videos start and pause with this key combination - but it was confusing to say the least. They should have researched key combinations better before assigning it in the first place.
In short, this is possibly the best offering from Firefox yet. It is fast, it looks good, and there are a number of new features and redesigns that make a lot of sense. My biggest issue lies with Panorama - the concept is excellent, I really like using it, but I don't think they've nailed it down properly yet. We either need another way to switch groups (such as a group chooser in the tabs drop-down to the right), or we need to have the option of using App Tabs to control groups. I've seen others making this comment on forums, and I suspect that Mozilla will find that, having introduced this as a bug in previous Betas, they have to incorporate it as a feature in Beta 8 or 9. I certainly hope they do.