Firefox 3.5: What's in a Number?

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I had an interesting chat this morning with Mike Shaver, VP, Engineering at Mozilla, about the imminent Firefox 3.5. Its launch takes place against a background where Firefox continues to make gains in the browser market, passing the 50% share in some European countries, and where it has created an unparalleled ecosystem of addons that places it at the forefront of the browser world in terms of capability and customisability.

I wondered why the Mozilla team had opted for the slightly curious 3.5 numbering: after all, if it's a major release it surely should be 4.0, and if it's not, why not choose a lower point upgrade?

Shaver noted how most of the real advances in 3.5 were non-obvious to the general user; sending it out into the world as Firefox 4.0 would have created false expectations that might not have been met. So think of it as a kind of coded signal to those in the know: it may not look much different, but there are some powerful new features under the bonnet.

Here's what the Mozilla page has to say on latest 3.5 beta's features:

This beta is now available in 70 languages - get your local version.

Improved tools for controlling your private data, including a Private Browsing Mode.

Better performance and stability with the new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine.

The ability to provide Location Aware Browsing using web standards for geolocation.

Support for native JSON, and web worker threads.

Improvements to the Gecko layout engine, including speculative parsing for faster content rendering.

Support for new web technologies such as: HTML5

Although there's a lot of good stuff in there, for me the key one is the support for HTML5

Here's what theora.org says:

Theora is a free and open video compression format from the Xiph.org Foundation. Like all our multimedia technology it can be used to distribute film and video online and on disc without the licensing and royalty fees or vendor lock-in associated with other formats.

As readers of this blog will be aware, all the other video (and audio) formats generally used, even by open source systems, are patent-encumbered. Theora and Vorbis offer the first free alternatives to them that are good enough to be used by the general public without anyone noticing (trade-offs between quality and freedom don't go down too well in that neck of the woods).

But there's a classic chicken and egg problem: until software supports those formats, no one is going to put stuff out in them; and until people start posting media in those formats, there's little incentive to support them.

Enter the dragon – or rather the lizard.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Firefox has established itself as a clear number 2 in the browser market, and is steadily conquering local markets one by one. Even if it is not the market leader yet – although it stands a good chance of achieving that in the not-too-distant future – it is certainly big enough that its decisions will have important knock-on consequences.

That, I believe, is exactly what will happen once Firefox 3.5 is widely used. Within a few months, there will tens and then hundreds of millions of browsers that come with support for Theora and Vorbis baked in – no downloads necessary.

Suddenly, it will make sense to use those formats, since they are high-quality, zero-cost and compatible with Firefox 3.5. In fact, to its huge credit, the popular video sharing site Dailymotion is *already* supporting Theora uploads.

Now, a lot depends on whether Google sees the light on this one, and follows suit (there are some very heated, er, discussions going on at the moment on this topic).

But even without Google, I believe that Firefox is now big enough in terms of its following to ensure Theora's long-term success (and maybe that of Vorbis, too, although I think that may be harder because the encumbered alternative – MP3 – is so ingrained in our digital culture). And remember, what that means is no more Flash videos, no more plugins for video, and a completely free alternative to proprietary media formats.

That's huge news, and something that is belied by that modest 3.5 naming Mozilla has adopted. I believe that Firefox 3.5 will actually prove to be one of the most important releases in the project's history, because it will prove to be a moment when Mozilla reached out beyond the browser sector, and started to make its presence felt in the equally huge world of content too.

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