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Mozilla Speeds Up Firefox Factory, Plans More Updates More Often

Firefox 3.6 is very nearly a done deal. Mozilla has pushed out a second release candidate and Mike Beltzner, Mozilla’s Director of Firefox, tells Webmonkey that the final browser release should arrive by the end of January.

That’s great news for Firefox fans, but it also typically brings a bit of letdown with it — all those features that didn’t make it in Firefox 3.6 will now have to wait some time before the next revision rolls around.

Or not. Mozilla is openly discussing a change to the Firefox development process that would make the browser more of what’s know as a “rolling distro” — updates would be pushed out as they’re ready, rather than waiting around for the next major version.

That’s very similar to the development model used by Google’s Chrome browser, which pushes out frequent minor feature updates in addition to larger x.0 releases. It makes sense that Mozilla would be adopting this philosophy similar to Chrome — and other fast-moving desktop software products, we should add — considering how quickly Chrome has changed so many aspects of the development, features and look-and-feel of other browsers. We touched upon the signposts of this shift in our look back at the first five years of Firefox’s history. Newer versions of Firefox going forward will feature several enhancements that bear similarities to Chrome: a tabs-on-top interface, isolated processes within tabs and a JavaScript-powered extensions framework. Firefox already has a private surfing mode like other browsers.

It’s a welcome change for users, too. Imagine seeing an enhancement in the pre-release builds that you end up loving because it makes certain sites run faster, only to see it pulled before the final release because it’s not quite 100 percent ready. It’s incredibly frustrating, because you’ll have to wait months for the next round of Firefox betas before you can start using it again. Well, not anymore.

Details of Mozilla’s plan are still vague, but Beltzner tells us that the plan is to work more features into minor updates. He followed up those points, which he told us in an interview last week, with a blog post letting Firefox fans know that, in the future, they won’t need to wait for a major release to get a faster, more stable browser.

That doesn’t mean though that Firefox is moving to the cram-it-down-your-throat update approach of Google Chrome. You’ll be able to turn off automatic updates and when it comes to features in minor upgrades, them emphasis will be on minor — behind-the-scenes changes that users probably won’t notice at first glance.

Beltzner’s examples include things like small speed improvements, support for new font technologies or improvements in Firefox’s open web video support.

One thing Beltzner is adamant about is that any such minor feature updates must not noticeably change Firefox.

I think of it this way,” he writes, “if I take my car in for service and it comes out with better fuel efficiency, that’s great … [but] if my gearshift has changed location, I’d be pretty surprised and upset. We shouldn’t be doing anything in a maintenance release that could leave a user surprised and upset, period.”

The change does mean there will likely be no Firefox 3.7. The main thing on the road map for Firefox 3.7 is the integration of Electrolysis, which allows Firefox to split the browser UI, web content and plug-ins into separate processes for improved stability.

Since this is precisely the under-the-hood, transparent update that Beltzner is talking about, Mozilla is planning to simply push Electrolysis out to Firefox users as part of a future minor update.

Of course, all this doesn’t mean there won’t be any major Firefox revisions coming in the future. Firefox 4.0 is the next likely milestone and, according to current road maps, should arrive some time early next year.

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