File Under: Browsers

Mozilla Brings Social to the Browser With Firefox 17

Firefox 17, now with more Facebook. Image: Mozilla.

Mozilla has released Firefox, 17 which includes support for the company’s new Social API. For this release Mozilla worked with Facebook to create Facebook Messenger for Firefox — a Firefox sidebar that brings your Facebook updates with you wherever you go on the web.

If you’re already using Firefox, the browser should update the next time you restart. If you’d like to test out Firefox’s new Social API features, head over to the Firefox downloads page and grab the latest release.

As we noted when the beta was released, the new Social API features are entirely opt-in. To see the new Facebook Messenger for Firefox you’ll need to visit the Facebook Messenger for Firefox page and click “Turn On.”

Once you’ve turned it on you’ll see a new social sidebar with Facebook chat and updates, like new comments and photo tags. Any new messages or friend requests will trigger notifications and you can reply right from the toolbar. There’s also a new “like” button in the URL bar for sharing websites that haven’t yet added their own “like” buttons.

The new Social API extends the App Tabs concept Mozilla debuted back in Firefox 4. App Tabs give websites a more permanent place in your browser window. Web apps like email, document editors or news feeds are easier to use when they get a special spot in your browser. The Social API extends that idea, bringing social websites out of tabs completely and into a persistent sidebar that you can access without the need to switch tabs or log in.

At the moment “social websites” means Facebook since Mozilla partnered with the company to build out the first Social API example, but it’s not hard to imagine Twitter building something similar. Perhaps even more interesting would be websites not typically considered “social networks”, but which could nevertheless tap into the Social API to build interesting tools. Imagine, for example, a GitHub sidebar with all your project updates and pull requests.

Giving social websites a cozier spot in your browser might sound like a privacy can of worms, but Tom Lowenthal, of Mozilla’s Privacy and Public Policy team, assures users that nothing has changed regarding the privacy of your data. “These pages are treated just as if you’d loaded them in another browser tab,” he writes. That means Facebook is tracking what you do, but no more so than if you logged into the site without the new Social features. In other words, just because Facebook is persistent in the sidebar doesn’t mean it has access to any additional information from your browser.

Firefox 17 marks the second of what Mozilla calls “Extended Support Release” (ESR), a version of Firefox that Mozilla supports a bit longer than usual so that organizations like schools and large businesses have the support they need for mass deployments. The last ESR release was Firefox 10, so there’s a ton of new features in store for those who’ve been sticking with the ESR releases.

Mozilla has been working hard on Firefox’s developer tools over the last several Firefox releases and Firefox 17 adds even more new stuff, including live HTML editing.

The Style panel has long allowed developers to manipulate the styles on a page and the new Markup panel can now pull the same trick with the DOM in real time. Got a client that wants to re-write the homepage copy? No problem, just start typing. Live previews mean you can quickly prototype ideas without diving into your actual HTML templates or even opening a text editor and starting the save-and-refresh dance.

The developer tools in Firefox 17 now look a bit more like what you’ll find in other browsers. Selecting HTML elements on the page no longer draws a dark “veil” over everything else. The veil nicely isolated elements, but it often made it difficult to work with surrounding elements. There’s been an option to turn off the background dimming for some time, but now the dimming is gone for good. Instead highlighted elements are outlined with a dashed line and the “node toolbar” which appears below the selected element.

There are several other new tools for web developers in this release, including a revamped Web Console and a smarter debugger. See our earlier coverage of the Aurora release and the Mozilla hacks blog for more details on everything that’s new.

For more on everything else that’s new in Firefox 17, including the new click-to-play policy, which prevents vulnerable plugins from running without the user’s permission, head on over to the Mozilla blog or read through the Firefox 17 release notes.