Mozilla launched a new Firefox 4 beta release for PCs and laptops Wednesday featuring expanded support for 3-D graphics, together with a revamped Firefox add-on manager. And on the mobile side, Mozilla introduced several enhancements to the mobile version of Firefox 4 beta for smartphones based on Google's Android and Nokia's Maemo platforms.
The popular browser's new 3-D enhancements are based on WebGL -- an open standard for accelerated 3-D graphics rendering on the web that eliminates the need for users to install special plug-ins. As a result, developers will be able to render amazing visual experiences directly within the browser window, noted Firefox Product Manager Mike Beltzner.
"Firefox 4 beta now supports WebGL for most modern built-in graphics cards, making it easier for developers to create interactive 3-D games, vivid graphics, and new visual experiences for the web without the use of third-party plug-ins," Beltzner wrote in a blog.
Applications that formerly would have been possible only on the desktop or with plug-ins become possible in any modern browser that supports WebGL, noted Principal Firefox Engineer Vlad Vukicevic. "3-D games, interactive product displays, scientific and medical visualization, shared virtual environments, and 3-D content creation all become possible on the web," he wrote in a blog.
WebGL is based on OpenGL ES 2.0 -- the same 3D API used for Android and iOS development, Vukicevic observed. By including WebGL -- together with Mozilla's work on HTML5 video and audio support -- Firefox 4 beta now supports "a full set of web technologies" for building rich and compelling applications on the web, he wrote.
"WebGL focuses on OpenGL ES 2.0 feature compatibility to ensure content compatibility with mobile devices," Vukicevic explained. "However, ES 2.0 is behind the latest advances on the desktop today, [and] in the future various desktop features may become available in WebGL in the form of extensions."
What's more, Firefox 4 beta updates add-ons automatically to ensure that the user's browser is always up to date. "This should happen without you even noticing, keeping add-ons safe and fast while eliminating the hassle of [manually] updating," wrote Firefox team member Jennifer Boriss in a blog.
Firefox 4 beta now includes a streamlined Firefox Sync setup for acquiring the same address-bar history, bookmarks, open tabs, and passwords across PCs and laptops as well as smartphones running Android or Maemo. For example, developers have made some significant UI improvements to make setting up new accounts or devices for Firefox Sync easier and faster, noted Ragavan Srinivasan, project manager for Firefox Sync.
"You are no longer required to come up with a secret phrase or a sync key," Srinivasan wrote in a blog. "It is automatically generated for you."
Like its PC counterpart, the new mobile version of Firefox 4 beta makes the discovery of add-ons easier and simplifies Firefox Sync setup. The latter is important for mobile users because it reduces the amount of typing needed to securely access browsing history, bookmarks, tabs and passwords, noted Firefox team member Stuart Parmenter.
Users of compatible smartphones also are now able to save web sites as PDFs for later reading, Parmenter wrote in a blog. Additionally, the new mobile version of Firefox 4 beta offers "support for 'copy and paste' in the URL bar," he added.