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New Firefox 4 Beta Released as February Target Nears
New Firefox 4 Beta Released as February Target Nears

By Mark Long
January 17, 2011 11:28AM

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With a February release date closing in, Mozilla has rushed out a new Firefox 4 beta in just three weeks. The fast pace is aimed at stopping Firefox's market decline as Microsoft prepares to release Internet Explorer 9 and Google scores gains with its Chrome browser. Mozilla said 143 "blockers" remain to be addressed before Firefox 4 is released.

Mozilla developers are pushing hard to bring the final release candidate of Firefox 4 to market by the end of next month. The organization unleashed the ninth beta to testers on Friday, just three weeks after the prior beta. By contrast, the previous beta update round took six weeks.

Due to competitive pressures from Microsoft's upcoming Internet Explorer 9 release and Google's steady stream of Chrome browser updates, it appears that Mozilla intends to finish work on Firefox 4 swiftly to keep from losing more ground in the global market.

"We have to reach release candidate status as quickly as possible," wrote Mozilla Senior Director of Platform Engineering Damon Sicore in a letter to developers last week.

Marketplace Pressures

According to Net Applications, IE held 57 percent of the global browser market at the end of 2010, followed by Firefox with 22.8 percent. Chrome ranked third with 9.98 percent, followed by Apple's Safari with 5.89 percent.

Though Firefox has long been IE's principal rival, growth for Mozilla's browser stalled last year, noted Net Applications Executive Vice President Vince Vizzaccaro.

"If you look at the long-term trends with browsers, IE lost almost eight percent of usage share in 2008, most of which went to Firefox," Vizzaccaro said. "IE lost about seven percent in 2009, with gains shared between Firefox, Chrome and Safari, and IE lost about five percent usage share in 2010, while Firefox also declined and Chrome and Safari made gains."

With developers pushing hard to release the final version of Firefox 4 in February, Vizzaccaro believes Mozilla has reason to be concerned that most browser users converting from IE are now adopting Chrome. Moreover, IE9 will not only feature several major improvements over IE8, but also be much faster, he noted.

"I have been using IE9 beta, and I believe this will be the version of IE that finally starts winning users back," Vizzaccaro said.

Al Hilwa, director of applications development software at IDC, really likes the new attention Microsoft is devoting to privacy with the do-not-track capabilities built into IE9. "It is gratifying when big companies begin to do the right thing," Hilwa said.

Fixing Critical Bugs

Though Mozilla is committed to shipping high-quality products only when they are ready, this doesn't mean developers can take their time, noted Mozilla's Director of Firefox Engineering Jonathan Nightingale. "Firefox 4 is good for the web, good for our users, and puts the heat on other vendors to up their own game," he wrote. "We need to ship it ASAP."

The more critical Firefox software bugs that Mozilla calls "hard blockers" form the main obstacle to the release of Firefox 4 on schedule, Nightingale observed.

"Each bug is evaluated against whether it's worth holding back the thousands of fixes that have already made it into the Firefox 4 tree," he explained. "A hard blocker is a failure of a core part of our release criteria -- a crash, a memory leak, a performance hit, a security issue, a UI breakage that can't be recovered from, an incompatibility we can't stomach."

By contrast, soft blockers are the "opportunity space" -- the work that lifts the quality and delight of the product. "Soft blockers are second priority to shipping," Nightingale observed. "People paid to work on Firefox will be focusing exclusively on hard blockers first."

Mozilla intends to hold up the final release of Firefox 4 until the last of the critical hard blockers are fixed. "The hard-blocker list is currently at 143," Nightingale noted. "When it hits zero, we can ship."

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